Proposed toll increase could drive truckers off Pennsylvania’s turnpike

| Friday, January 16, 2004

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is counting on revenues from a proposed toll increase will 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 Turnpike Commission announced the proposal earlier this week. 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. That amount includes the ticketed section of the road, plus the fee collected at the cash gate at the Ohio border.

Carl DeFebo, a public information manager with the Turnpike Authority, told Land Line the increase would average 42.5 percent for the ticketed section of the turnpike.

Turnpike officials told The Pittsburgh Post Gazette that they are forecasting a 5 percent drop in truck traffic should the higher tolls go into effect. That decrease is figured into the commission’s estimate for how much revenue the increase will bring in.

However, Todd Spencer, executive vice president of OOIDA, said he thought that estimate was low. In fact, he said it “wouldn’t surprise me in the least” if the drop in traffic was 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 truck traffic and other commercial vehicles using the road, and a 15 percent reduction in the amount of toll revenues that they collected.

However, toll road officials said they think any reduction in truck traffic will 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."

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

“When you’re talking about that much, people alter their driving habits permanently based on that kind of crap,” he said. “I think it’ll be more than that (the state’s 5 percent estimated drop) if it was 15 percent previously.”

There is ample evidence for that right across the Ohio border.

The Ohio experience

Ohio’s turnpike experienced significant drops in revenue after that state raised tolls there. The increase there, which was 82 percent, went into effect in 1995. But, according to The Associated Press, the negative effect of that continues to the present: in 2002, commercial trucks made up 56 percent of the highway’s revenue; in 1994, it made up 62 percent.

Truckers instead are using alternate, non-toll routes, and many cities along those routes are complaining because of increased traffic.

The revenue drop has been significant enough that the state at one point asked the federal government for $250,000 to pay for a study to determine how to bring truckers back to the toll road. Among the options being considered – lowering tolls.

One Ohio lawmaker was quick to respond to that idea.

“We don’t need to spend $250,000 of taxpayer’s money to tell us the obvious,” state Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Lakeville, said. “Why would any business pay to use a service when they can receive practically the same service at lower cost?”

Dollars and cents

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission said in a statement that the money from the toll increase would be used for repairs and to reconstruct portions of the roadway.

“The Pennsylvania Turnpike is America’s first superhighway,” DeFebo told Land Line. “It was built in ’38 and ’39, and opened in 1940. Eisenhower signed the Interstate Act in ’54, so that’s 15 years prior to the interstates.

“That’s really the reason for this increase,” he added. “It has to do with our need to renew our infrastructure. 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.

“We’re already paying,” he said. “More than 24 cents a gallon federal tax on every gallon of fuel. In Pennsylvania, we’re paying about 31 cents a gallon fuel tax.”

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

Truckers also pay through the current tolls – and according to the turnpike’s own figures, it’s a significant portion of the highway’s current revenue.

Commercial vehicles make up between 14 percent and 15 percent of all traffic on the turnpike, DeFebo said. However, the fees they pay make up roughly half of the toll road’s revenue. More than 61,000 commercial vehicles traveled the highway every day in 2002, according to the commission.

The turnpike commissioners are expected to vote on the proposed increase Jan. 20. If they approve the measure, tolls would rise Aug. 1. The members of the commission are:

  • Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell
  • Mitchell Rubin, chairman
  • Timothy J. Carson, vice chairman
  • James J. Dodaro, secretary-treasurer
  • Pasquale T. Deon Sr., commissioner
  • Allen Biehler, commissioner, secretary of transportation
  • Joseph G. Brimmeier, chief executive officer
  • Kevin F. Longenbach, chief operating officer

Pennsylvania truckers can offer their comments on the proposed toll increase by contacting the commission.

To e-mail the commission, send a message marked ATTENTION: The PA Turnpike Commission to PTCCustSrv@paturnpike.com. Truckers can also call toll-free at 1-800-331-3414. Comments need to be phoned in between 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. EST; operators are available during those hours, but there is no method to leave a message after hours.

In addition, truckers can contact Gov. Ed Rendell, a member of the commission, at his office at (717) 787-2500. Pennsylvania citizens can contact the governor online by going to http://sites.state.pa.us/PA_Exec/Governor/govmail.html and filling out the form.

--by Mark H. Reddig, associate editor

Mark Reddig can be reached at mark_reddig@landlinemag.com.

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