When the Pennsylvania Turnpike's fifth consecutive annual toll increase takes effect Jan. 6, drivers who use cash will be paying about 70 percent more than they did five years ago.
E-ZPass users, who now account for two-thirds of the turnpike's business, have been shielded somewhat from ticket shock: Rates for them have climbed about 35 percent since before January 2009.
The newest increase will be 10 percent for cash payers and 2 percent for users of E-ZPass, the electronic collection system that automatically deducts tolls from prepaid accounts when a driver passes a tolling point.
A ride over the entire 359-mile turnpike mainline will cost $39.15 eastbound and $33.90 westbound for cash customers; $30.77 eastbound and $26.71 westbound for E-ZPass holders.
A trip from Monroeville to Breezewood, which cost $6.50 before the string of annual increases, will be $11.25 in cash, $8.79 with E-ZPass starting on Jan. 6.
The turnpike raised tolls only five times from its opening in 1940 through 2004. The five recent increases stem mostly from a 2007 state law, Act 44, that requires the turnpike commission to pay $450 million per year to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for non-turnpike uses -- roads, bridges and transit.
Since the law's enactment, the turnpike has made $3.6 billion in payments to PennDOT, the equivalent of more than four years worth of turnpike revenue. The turnpike has borrowed heavily to make the payments and uses the annual toll increases to service debt that, according to Auditor General Jack Wagner, has grown by 200 percent since Act 44 was enacted.
"It's safe to say that no other toll agency is injecting this much support to the state," turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo said. "We're doing a lot of heavy lifting for PennDOT."
The turnpike has calculated that at present, Act 44 obligations consume 18 cents of every toll dollar, he said.
The law requires the $450 million annual payments to PennDOT through 2057 and that likely will continue to cause yearly toll increases unless the Legislature rewrites or repeals it as part of expected upcoming deliberations about transportation funding in general.
January marks the third consecutive year of increases for cash customers that are bigger than those for E-ZPass users, and will leave cash tolls about 27 percent higher than E-ZPass tolls.
Turnpike officials make no secret of their desire to nudge drivers to electronic payment. Handling cash costs at least four times as much as processing E-ZPass payments, and E-ZPass lanes can handle four times the traffic volume of a cash lane. They also tout the convenience to drivers, who don't have to fumble with currency and coins when they exit the pike.
As an added incentive, the turnpike has rolled back the annual service fee for E-ZPass from $6 to $3.
Sixty-eight percent of turnpike drivers use E-ZPass. "We'd like to see that grow to 75 percent or 80 percent," Mr. DeFebo said. "As we widen the differential between cash and E-ZPass we're seeing more people sign up. We think this is going to go a long way toward increasing enrollment."
The turnpike is gearing up to get rid of cash collections altogether. It expects to convert to all-electronic tolling over the next five years or so.
In that system, drivers will maintain speed while passing under gantries that detect E-ZPass transponders. For those without, E-ZPass, cameras will photograph the license plate and a computer-generated bill will be mailed to the driver.
The recent series of increases has made the turnpike one of the most expensive long toll roads in the nation in per-mile charges.
After Jan. 6, cash customers will pay about 10.2 cents per mile in Pennsylvania, compared with 6.8 cents on the Ohio Turnpike, 6 cents on the Indiana Toll Road and 5.1 cents on the New York State Thruway. The New Jersey Turnpike remains the nation's most expensive long toll road at 11.4 cents per mile.
E-ZPass users also pay more in Pennsylvania than in neighboring states: about 8 cents per mile, compared with 4.7 cents in Ohio, 3 cents in Indiana and 4.8 cents in New York.
Mr. DeFebo said the turnpike is older than those in neighboring states and more expensive to maintain because of weather and geography. "We have freeze-thaw, valleys, rivers, swamp land, mountainous terrain. They don't have those type of challenges in Ohio or Delaware or New Jersey."
Jon Schmitz: email@example.com or 412-263-1868.