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Turnpike tolls: Truckers caught in financial pinch

Audit sounds alarm on Pa. Turnpike's money problems

For trucks operated by Carlisle Carrier Corp., the quickest and most direct route between the midstate and grocery warehouses in New Jersey is the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

But to avoid high tolls, the Cumberland County-based hauler sends many trucks on longer, less direct routes, said Chris Peters, executive vice president of Carlisle Carrier.

While the detour can add 15 to 18 miles in each direction, it saves the company $49 in tolls each way, which Peters said outweighs the added travel time and fuel consumption.

Given a fleet of 285 trucks, the savings can be “thousands of dollars a day,” he said.

With the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission caught between mounting debt, state-imposed payments to support public transit, relatively static traffic and an increasing number of scofflaws, the agency has resorted to regular toll hikes in recent years. Its next hike is set for January.

And that has businesses like Carlisle Carrier looking to route their vehicles off the toll road as much as possible at a time when the commission needs all the revenue it can get. State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale this month released an audit arguing that drastic action is needed to stave off financial disaster.

Trucks are key. They account for nearly half of annual toll revenue, despite making up less than 15 percent of total traffic, Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo said. In fiscal 2016, trucks made up $443 million of the Turnpike’s $1 billion in revenue, he said.

“While we have heard anecdotal evidence that some truckers may be taking shorter trips, the numbers tell a different story,” DeFebo added. Mileage by commercial vehicles on the mainline Turnpike between Ohio and New Jersey increased from nearly 1.19 billion in fiscal 2015 to 1.24 billion in fiscal 2016.

“Traffic, including commercial vehicles, has continued to increase on the Pennsylvania Turnpike since 2012,” DeFebo said.

Act 44

The seeds of the Turnpike’s money problems were planted nearly a decade ago with the passage of Act 44 in 2007.

The 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 help fund public transit.

To help cover the 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.

Some relief came in 2013, when Act 89 cut the annual transfer to $50 million starting in 2023. But as DePasquale points out, that means public transit systems around the state face a looming $400 million shortfall.

DePasquale adds that the Turnpike’s own numbers suggest trouble ahead.

Based on numbers provided by a consultant, the turnpike is relying on projections calling for a 215 percent increase in toll revenue between 2015 and 2035 and a 44 percent increase in traffic volume through 2044, the audit found.

Before Act 44, the commission only increased tolls five times in 64 years, the audit pointed out. Since the passage of Act 44 and because of an increasing debt load, tolls have gone up each year since 2009, with increases outpacing inflation.

Higher tolls bump up against another problem for the Turnpike: traffic volume has remained “relatively flat” over the last decade, which means that the turnpike must increase both usage and tolls, DePasquale said.

“There’s no way more people are going to use the turnpike and pay more and more money to do it,” he said.

Worse still, DePasquale said, the turnpike has had to cut spending on improvement projects — a rebuilding plan was already reduced by $1 billion over the next 10 years.

Commission Chairman Sean Logan responded to DePasquale’s audit with broad support for — if not complete agreement with — its conclusions. Logan noted that the commission has been working with state officials and lawmakers to address the financial challenges.

Pursuing scofflaws

According to DePasquale, one of the commission’s challenges is making sure turnpike users are paying.
Most drivers on the turnpike — about 99 percent — pay their tolls, according to Turnpike CEO Mark Compton.

DePasquale’s audit, which covered fiscal years 2014 to 2016, found that toll violations are increasing, however, and the commission is writing off $12 million to $20 million per year. By the end of 2015, nearly $43.2 million remained uncollected, the audit found.

DePasquale said that while the commission tries multiple methods to collect unpaid tolls, it needs more authority to deter violators.

He called on state lawmakers to give the Turnpike power to suspend a Pennsylvania vehicle’s registration until outstanding tolls and fees are paid. He also wants to see the state establish reciprocity agreements with surrounding states that would suspend a vehicle’s registration in a violator’s home state if the violator has outstanding tolls or fees in another state.

Such a proposal is in the works.

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

The law also would allow the commission to negotiate reciprocity agreements with other states, DeFebo said.

Free rides?

DePasquale also called on the agency to cut back on the number of people granted free travel on the highway.

The commission allows employees, third-party vendors such as contractors and consultants, and others to travel the turnpike toll free for business and personal use, according to the audit.

The turnpike countered that it would be hard to distinguish between personal and business use, since its employees may be working any day at any time.

The agency disagreed that it is losing millions of dollars due to personal travel, but acknowledged that more must be done to prevent abuse of the free-travel privilege.

On all of these issues, DePasquale reiterated that time is of the essence, with “only three legislative sessions left to deal with this issue before it hits, and hits hard.”

Truckers’ worries

The warnings come as commercial vehicles become an increasingly important element of Turnpike patronage, and as Turnpike users prepare to see their tolls go up 6 percent on Jan. 8.

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.

“It’s always been expensive,” Carlisle’s Peters said, but each annual increase only drives more rigs off the toll road.

Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association President Kevin Stewart agreed. He and Peters both said their industry appreciates the challenges faced by turnpike officials, but that doesn’t make life any easier for truckers.

“Some carriers work on extremely thin profit margins,” Stewart said, so each toll hike “will force more of them off the turnpike.”

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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