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Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls will increase – again – starting next year

Turnpike's Uncollected Tolls
Signs on the electronic toll booths indicate to motorists entering the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Gibsonia, Pa. on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, to keep moving and the methods being used to collect tolls. More than $104 million in Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls went uncollected last year as the agency fully converted to all-electronic tolling. Turnpike records show the millions of motorists who don’t use E-ZPass have a nearly 1 in 2 chance of riding without paying under the “toll-by-plate” license plate reader system. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

WSKG - Pennsylvania Turnpike drivers will see another toll increase next year.

The five-member Turnpike Commission approved a 5% hike for all drivers beginning Jan. 8. The minimum toll for an E-Z Pass customer will increase from $1.70 to $1.80. Drivers who use Toll By Plate will pay at least another $.30 starting next year, or $4.40.

The minimum commercial truck traffic toll will jump from $13.70 to $14.40 for E-Z Pass – and from $28.00 to $29.40 for Toll By Plate.

The Commission has increased tolls every year since 2007. That’s when lawmakers approved Act 44, which requires the Turnpike to pitch in money for state transportation costs – including public transit in cities like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

Some of those payments have been made using toll money, but Turnpike Commission spokesperson Rosanne Placey said government bond investors have loaned the agency the lion’s share of the money.

“Over the course of the last 15 years, we’ve transferred almost $8 billion in funding to PennDOT,” Placey said. “The vast majority of this we had to borrow, and we did this through the issuance of bond debt.”

The agency estimates it will have to pay back around $7.3 billion in bonds over the next few decades, plus interest. Placey said debt payments could be as high as $600 million per year until 2030.

“It’s costly to borrow and it takes a long time to pay it back, [but] we did it in this measured way so we could continue to fund our capital projects,” she added.

On top of the bond debt payments, the Turnpike Commission is also still responsible for some state Department of Transportation costs. At one point, the agency was forwarding more than $500 million each year from its coffers to the state’s Motor License Fund. It’s now only required to send $50 million per year.

Placey said the turnpike also saw toll revenue shrink during the pandemic, when nearly 60% fewer drivers were using the roadway.

Altogether, that means toll increases are likely to happen each year for the foreseeable future.

“Our customers expect a higher level of safety, quality and rideability because they pay a premium,” Placey said. “But to keep those things in place, it takes a considerable amount [of money].”

A data table assembled by the Turnpike Commission shows the toll road’s nearly $.15-per-mile cost is lower than the national average of almost $.18-per-mile, but drivers can rack up a significantly higher bill on the turnpike simply because it’s longer than most toll roads.

Of the 47 U.S. toll roads the table compares,  the Pocahontas Parkway in Virginia has the highest cost per-mile cost of nearly $.60. But that roadway is just under nine miles long, while the main leg of the Pennsylvania Turnpike is 360 miles long.

Placey said toll increases will likely decrease as bonds are paid off.