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A prophesy with a problem

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is counting on revenue from a recently passed toll increase to pay for much-needed improvements. But they may be counting their chickens before they’ve hatched.

Officials in the trucking industry say the increase could cause a far larger drop in truck traffic on the road — and therefore revenue into its coffers — than the toll board expects.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission announced Jan. 21 it had approved the increase. The new rates, effective Aug. 1, 2004, are the first increase since 1991.

The current toll for an 80,000-pound, class 8 truck traveling the entire length of the turnpike’s 359-mile main line would increase from $105.55 to $150.75. Carl DeFebo, a turnpike spokesman, told Land Line the increase would average 42.5 percent for the ticketed section of the road.

Turnpike CEO Joseph G. Brimmeier pledged in a statement that all revenue from the increase would be used for repairs and improvements.

“Our turnpike is a safe road today,” Brimmeier said. “But, if we do not implement a toll hike, the potential clearly exists for the road to become unsafe.”

Setting sail for friendlier waters?
Turnpike officials told The Pittsburgh Post Gazette that they are forecasting a 5 percent drop in truck traffic when the higher tolls go into effect.

However, Todd Spencer, executive vice president of OOIDA, said it “wouldn’t surprise me in the least” if the drop in traffic were larger than that.

Spencer recalled the last increase in tolls in 1991 — about 30 percent, far lower than the current proposal. The proceeds from that increase were to be used to build new toll roads and new toll facilities in other parts of the state. But that increase, despite being lower, resulted in a 13 percent drop in commercial vehicle traffic on the road and a 15 percent drop in toll revenue.

However, turnpike officials said they think any reduction in truck traffic would be temporary.

“It’s safe to say that initially an increase is going to drive people off the system,” DeFebo told the Pittsburgh newspaper. “But it’s also safe to say that over time, people will come back.”

Spencer took issue with that, saying part of the drop would likely be long lasting.

“People alter their driving habits permanently based on that kind of crap,” he said.

Dollars and cents
In announcing the increase, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has stressed that the money from the toll increase would be used for repairs and reconstruction.

The road “was built in ’38 and ’39, and opened in 1940,” DeFebo told Land Line. “I would think that professional drivers more than anyone else can relate to the fact that we really need to rebuild the highway.”

But Spencer said truckers already pay plenty of money to keep up Pennsylvania’s roads, “more than 24 cents a gallon federal tax on every gallon of fuel. … In Pennsylvania, we’re paying about 31 cents a gallon” in additional taxes to the state.

Truckers also pay through the current tolls — and the turnpike’s own figures show it’s a significant portion of the highway’s revenue.

Commercial vehicles make up between 14 percent and 15 percent of all traffic on the turnpike, DeFebo said. However, their fees make up roughly half of the road’s revenue.

“These are simply modern-day highwaymen fleecing truckers and travelers,” Spencer said.

by Mark H. Reddig, associate editor Mark Reddig can be reached at Mark_reddig@landlinemag.com.

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