Toll hikes nothing new, but they add up for drivers

In its first 69 years, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission increased its toll rates only six times.

Since that sixth increase, in 2009, eight more have followed.

As explained in the Business Journal’s companion story about how Pennsylvania’s toll rates exceed those in nearby states, the impact of Act 44, a state law passed in 2007, created an annual burden for $450 million for the commission. That was followed by the adoption of yearly toll increases, starting in 2009.

While the size of those hikes may be painful, turnpike officials say the timing may help make those necessary increases easier to bear for motorists, truckers and freight companies.

Pennsylvania Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo said the commission sought input from trucking companies back in the 2000s, and learned that business owners preferred the idea of gradual annual increases as opposed to double-digit jumps on an irregular schedule.

“It just seems to make a little more sense, to soften the blow a little bit,” DeFebo said.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike was a pioneer among U.S. superhighways, predating the national Interstate system by 16 years when it opened in October 1940. The first 160-mile stretch linked Irwin, near Pittsburgh, with the Carlisle area.

According to a chart provided by the commission (see below), the first toll increase didn’t take effect until 1956.

The next hike, a whopping 82 percent, didn’t follow until 1969. By that time, the road had been extended to cross the entire state, and a 359-mile car trip from the Ohio state line to the Delaware River Bridge cost $7.10.

Today, that trip costs $37.03 with E-Z Pass, or $51.64 using cash.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index Inflation Calculator, the buying power of $1 in 1969 would be equivalent to $6.62 in 2017.

That means the $7.10 cross-state toll of 1969 would cost $46.98 today — lower than the current cash rate, but higher than the E-Z Pass rate. Given that about 80 percent of tolls are paid using E-Z Pass, most Turnpike customers are getting a better deal than their parents and grandparents did 48 years ago.

But that may come as little comfort to those who have been paying tolls in recent years.

Additional intermittent increases followed the 1968 hike, in 1978 (23 percent), 1987 (30 percent), 1991 (30 percent) and 2004 (42.5 percent.)

The 25 percent increase of 2009 was the first of repeated annual increases to follow. E-Z Pass hikes ranged from 0 to 6 percent, while cash rates increased from 3 to 12 percent each year. The past three years have seen uniform increases of 5 percent (2015) and 6 percent (2016-17) for both cash and E-Z Pass.

According to Statbureau.org, the U.S. inflation rate for 2016 was 2.07 percent, meaning Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls increased by nearly triple the rate of inflation this year.

Get used to it.

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, as the agency continues to grapple with maintaining the road, the costs of servicing $10 billion in debt, and the ongoing requirement to pay millions each year to the state Department of Transportation under Act 44.

While toll revenues are forecast to reach $1.1 billion in fiscal year 2017, Logan has said, debt service alone costs the commission $573 million per year.

For the Turnpike, there is at least some relief in sight. 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.

What does that mean for motorists?

With a consistent increase of 6 percent per year, the E-Z Pass automobile toll to cross the state could be more than $150 by 2044. For an 18-wheeler, that might work out to well over $700. 

Toll-rate timeline, courtesy of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission

Roger DuPuis
Roger DuPuis covers Cumberland County, health care, transportation, distribution, energy and environment. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at rdupuis@cpbj.com.

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