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Pa. Turnpike CEO talks toll scofflaws in chamber address

Most of the drivers — about 99 percent — who use the Pennsylvania Turnpike are honest souls who pay their tolls, an act which is on track to generate about $1 billion this year.

What about that other 1 percent?

Their actions leave the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to pursue about $35 to $40 million per year, Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission CEO Mark Compton told guests at the Harrisburg Regional Chamber & CREDC annual transportation briefing Tuesday morning at the Radisson Hotel Harrisburg in Cumberland County.

It was only one of several themes the turnpike executive touched upon during a presentation which also included an address by a state museum curator about an exhibit highlighting the superhighway’s 75-year history.

The commission does recover most of those outstanding tolls, Compton explained, but is grappling with an increase in the amount which ultimately ends up being written off — $3.7 million in 2014-15 rose to $5.4 million for the 2015-16 fiscal year, which ended June 1.

Perhaps that doesn’t seem large in the context of an annual haul approaching a billion dollars, but as Compton put it, the money would fund “a really nice bridge project.”

It’s also no small amount for an agency which has an estimated $7 billion in debt.

The commission, and state lawmakers, are not sitting idle.

A Senate bill proposed by Senate Transportation Chairman John Rafferty, R-Montgomery County, and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny County, would give state officials more power to pursue scofflaws.

Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo said the legislation would allow PennDOT to suspend the registrations of Pennsylvania motorists who have either $500 or more in open violations or six individual violations.

Because the violations are not limited to in-state drivers, the law also would give the commission the ability to negotiate reciprocity agreements with other states, so their drivers could be held accountable for unpaid violations in Pennsylvania, DeFebo said.

That’s critical, given that many of the violators come from neighboring states, particularly New Jersey.

Given the amount of traffic between Southeastern Pennsylvania and the Garden State, that should not be surprising. Compton also pointed out that January saw the commission install its first cashless toll station at the Delaware River Bridge between the two states, which may be a factor for the spike in lost revenue.

The next four big contributors are Ohio, New York, Florida — obviously not a neighbor — and Maryland, DeFebo added.

“Most of our customers do the right thing,” he said. “We’re just asking everyone to pay their fair share.”

Indeed, DeFebo said, part of the problem is getting drivers accustomed to the expansion of cashless technology.

Compton says that trend is a good thing, for the Turnpike and for drivers. One of the problems the agency has been tackling is the rise in fender-benders at toll plazas where cashless E-Z Pass booths are used alongside cash booths, with drivers having to merge into the appropriate booth as they slow for the plaza.

Currently, he said, the ration is 80 percent E-Z Pass and 20 percent cash.

Cashless tolling speeds access, he said. Not only that, as more locations seek access to the toll road, building smaller, cashless facilities will reduce the physical and environmental impact of toll plazas, Compton said.

Compton also addressed the question of hiking tolls, something the agency will do in the new year.

Revenues from the increase will fund a newly approved, 10-year spending plan to invest more than $5.77 billion in rebuilding and widening the system over the coming decade, as well as providing funding to the state to help support public transportation.

Under the new rate structure, the most common toll for a passenger vehicle will increase from $1.16 to $1.23 for E-ZPass customers and from $1.80 to $1.95 for cash customers.

The most common toll for a Class-5 vehicle — a prevalent tractor-trailer class — will increase from $9.59 to $10.17 for E-ZPass and from $13.60 to $14.45 for cash.

“Maintaining a 75-year-old roadway has costs to it,” Compton said.

That storied history is the topic of an exhibit at the State Museum of Pennsylvania, which Senior Curator Curtis Miner discussed at Tuesday’s gathering.

The toll road, which was a pioneer among U.S. superhighways, predated the national Interstate system by 16 years, opening in October 1940. The first 160-mile stretch linked Irwin, near Pittsburgh, with the Carlisle area.

The new road made travel “from Point A to Point B faster, safer and more convenient” by eliminating natural, man-made barriers, Miner said, and “was the eighth wonder of the world in its day.”

“But it’s been taken for granted by a lot of folks,” Miner said, which is what gives the exhibit much of its appeal.

“One of the most rewarding comments we receive is, ‘I had no idea,’” he added.

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