It’s not just in your head. If tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike seem high, that’s because they are.
Media coverage of yearly toll increases on the 552-mile system has become an annual ritual, so the hikes — usually in the 3 percent to 6 percent range — are no secret. But what many travelers may not realize is that the regular increases mean the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s toll rates are now noticeably higher than its peers in neighboring and nearby states.
That’s not just inconvenient for personal travel. It also pushes up the cost of doing business for trucking companies and others who rely on the turnpike to deliver raw materials and goods across the state.
Trucks account for nearly half of the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s annual toll revenue, despite making up less than 15 percent of total traffic. In fiscal 2016, they generated $443 million for the commission.
A Business Journal review of rates for toll roads in Pennsylvania and four other states — Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Ohio — found that the cost of driving an 18-wheeler across the length of the Pennsylvania Turnpike using the E-Z Pass system, was nearly three times more expensive than in Ohio, more than twice as expensive as in New York and Massachusetts, and nearly 25 percent higher than in New Jersey.
Because Pennsylvania also has a bigger gap between cash and E-Z Pass toll rates than the other states, the difference between cash tolls across jurisdictions was even greater — Pennsylvania’s cash rate is more than triple the cash fare in Ohio, for example.
In Ohio, a cross-state trip would cost just 20.6 cents per mile in cash or 16.4 cents using E-Z Pass, with no extra tolls for entering the state.
In Pennsylvania, the tolls alone on the 357-mile east-west mainline turnpike would cost a trucker 67.3 cents per mile in cash or 48.3 cents using E-Z Pass. If entering the state from Ohio or New Jersey via the Delaware River Bridge, you can add between $20 and $27 (cash versus E-Z Pass) for extra tolls at those border-crossing points.
Officials with the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission are well aware of the differences, and the causes. Those causes include the age and size of the system, as well as the difficult terrain through which the turnpike weaves. But they also include a series of political decisions going back more than 30 years, for which officials say there may not be an easy fix.
A tale of two acts
“This story really is about what we were asked to do starting in 1985 and 2007,” said Pennsylvania Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo.
The first section of the turnpike opened in 1940, predating the national Interstate system by 16 years. Until 1985, tolls paid by motorists paid only to maintain and operate the road, DeFebo said.
In that year, the state General Assembly passed Act 61, a bill that required the Turnpike Commission to undertake a number of construction projects, some of them under the commission’s jurisdiction, others designed to connect its system with other highways or improve existing links, as with Interstate 95 in the Philadelphia area.
The law resulted in a number of costly — but necessary — projects, such as doubling existing two-lane tunnels on the main east-west turnpike and on its northeast extension. That work, plus mileage added in the greater Pittsburgh area, also drove up the annual cost of maintenance. Then too, DeFebo noted, some of the projects authorized by the bill, notably I-95 work, is still in progress three decades later, thanks to the lengthy planning and approvals process involving multiple layers of government.
Then came Act 44 of 2007.
That law broadened the agency’s responsibilities beyond the turnpike to include funding other transportation needs. Under Act 44, turnpike officials must pay $450 million a year to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to help fund public transit and multimodal transportation projects across the state.
To help cover those costs, Interstate 80 was supposed to be turned into a toll road, managed by the commission.
It didn’t work out that way. The federal government rejected the I-80 tolling plan, but Act 44 — and the annual $450 million payment — remained law.
Thanks to that law, 26 cents out of every toll dollar leaves the commission’s hands.
“Act 44 is the reason the turnpike has been implementing annual toll increases since 2009,” DeFebo said.
An audit report released last summer by State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale pointed out that before Act 44, the commission had increased tolls only five times in 64 years.
There was a third act that brought some relief.
Under Act 89 of 2013, the turnpike’s annual transfer to PennDOT will be cut from $450 million to $50 million starting in 2023.
Still, DeFebo pointed out, without any further action, that obligation is set to remain in place until 2057.
Turnpike Commission Chairman Sean Logan last year said current turnpike traffic and revenue forecasts call for annual increases of 3 percent to 6 percent at least through 2044.
How Pa. compares
At 552 miles, the Pennsylvania Turnpike was larger than all of the other toll roads surveyed for this story. Only the New York State Thruway came close, at 496 miles, while the New Jersey Turnpike was the shortest, at 122 miles.
Those toll roads are aging too, but they’re at least a decade newer than Pennsylvania’s, all having opened in the 1950s.
The commonwealth’s geography also plays a significant role in driving up costs. The toll roads in all the other states are relatively flat and straight, while the Pennsylvania Turnpike crosses through much mountainous terrain, including numerous tunnels.
And again, money is also an issue.
In addition to the annual Act 44 obligation, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is in the midst of a 10-year capital improvement plan that will cost $500 million a year. It is perhaps not surprising then, that the commission has accumulated about $10 billion in debt, according to statistics provided by DeFebo.
Citing research undertaken for the commission, DeFebo said the other states’ turnpike agencies typically have much less debt — $1.5 billion in Ohio, $2 billion in Massachusetts and $5.6 billion in New York. Only New Jersey, with $11 billion in debt, topped Pennsylvania, he said.
Of those other states, only Ohio responded to a request for comment prior to press time. Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission spokesman Brian Newbacher confirmed that his agency’s debt now stands at $1.6 billion.
DeFebo also said he was not aware of the other turnpikes having been subject to substantial external funding obligations like Pennsylvania’s Act 44.
While not an exact parallel, Ohio’s Newbacher did say a 2013 act passed in that state provided for the issuance of about $1.5 billion in turnpike agency bonds to fund transportation projects “with a nexus to the turnpike.” Based on state documents, that means a project may not be physically linked to the Ohio Turnpike, but is close enough to have an impact on the highway’s traffic and revenues.
In Pennsylvania, DeFebo said the commission understands and appreciates why public transit and other transportation projects are important to the state’s residents and economy. In Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which receive the bulk of the Act 44 money, buses and rail lines provide needed mobility to people who can’t drive, while helping reduce congestion on busy arteries like the Turnpike and Interstate highways.
“It was direly needed,” he said. “Having said that, it is definitely to the detriment of our customers.”
Taking its toll
Kevin Stewart, president of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, or PMTA, agreed.
“Our members are quite obviously concerned about costs,” said Stewart, whose organization speaks for the trucking industry statewide.
“Most of the companies operate on a very fine profit margin,” Stewart added, “and those members are concerned about tolls.”
At the same time, Stewart acknowledges that turnpike officials are grappling with a complex set of conditions. He just hopes they are doing their best to keep tolls reasonable.
“I think the turnpike has done an outstanding job in terms of continuous improvement to their infrastructure. We don’t mind paying those costs if they’re fair and equitable.”
And that is a sensitive issue.
A number of trucking companies in Pennsylvania and surrounding states, contacted by the Business Journal, did not respond to requests for comment.
A spokeswoman for one of the largest highway users, UPS, said the company declined to comment. She suggested contacting the Virginia-based Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates as a resource on toll-related issues.
Launched in 2014, the alliance is a coalition of businesses and organizations from across the country that oppose any expansion of plans to add tolls to existing Interstate highways. As part of its mission, the group also has researched the management of existing toll roads, and their impact on businesses and the economy.
“There are a number of negative consequences of tolls that are both social and economic,” alliance spokeswoman Stephanie Kane said.
One of the biggest cited by Kane’s group and others is that increasing tolls push more and more drivers off turnpikes and onto other roads. That is something PMTA’s Stewart has heard from his members, as well as from interstate carriers.
As Kane pointed out, not only does that mean less revenue for the Turnpike Commission. The added traffic on other roads leads to congestion, and added wear-and-tear, hurting local businesses and imposing greater costs on the agencies responsible for maintaining those other roads, she said.
DeFebo knows this all too well. He also knows that tolls seem here to stay in Pennsylvania, meaning the balancing act for businesses will continue.
“It’s a lot like a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said of truckers diverting off the highway to save costs.
The more that leave, the more revenue is lost. At the same time, he also sees some companies using other strategies to maximize efficiency, both on and off the Turnpike.
Improved traffic planning technology allows companies to make sure trucks are filled in both directions, resulting in fewer empty return trips than were common even a decade ago, DeFebo said. As well, others are making more strategic decisions about where to exit and leave the Turnpike – so they might cut trips short, but few are avoiding the highway altogether.
“It’s a business decision that they have to make,” DeFebo said.
“If I’m a truck driver, I have to know what my costs are that I’m charging my customer,” he said. “It is compelling trucking companies to make decisions about the route that they take.”