The Pennsylvania Turnpike is done with four years of testing and will move full speed ahead with a $129 million project to become a completely cashless toll system by the fall of 2021.
Although the system won’t take cash after that point, the agency expects to continue using toll booths at some exit ramps across the state until 2026. Those booths will record E-ZPass transponder signals or take license-plate photographs so the agency can mail bills to drivers until the agency finishes installing 43 overhead gantries on the main line and Northeast Extension in three phases over the next six years.
The project also means the elimination of jobs for 600 remaining toll collectors and toll auditors, who will have the opportunity to move into other turnpike jobs or take classes at the turnpike’s expense to begin a new career.
“As I sit here today, the pilot phase is behind us,” turnpike CEO Mark Compton said in an interview. “The goal is to have the system completely cashless by the fall of 2021.”
Since 2016, the turnpike has been testing cashless tolling at several spots throughout the state, first at the Delaware River Bridge, followed by the Beaver Valley Expressway, the Keyser Avenue and Clarks Summit interchanges on the Northeast Extension in Lackawanna County, and the Findlay Connector near Pittsburgh International Airport. Just last week, it began cashless tolls at the Gateway Plaza, where traffic from Ohio enters the turnpike in Lawrence County, as well as the Turnpike Route 66 bypass in Westmoreland County.
The turnpike’s newest section under construction, the 13-mile Southern Beltway between Route 22 and I-79 near the Pittsburgh airport, has been designed for cashless tolls.
“I wanted to see the results on the pilots before we flip the switch across the state,” Compton said. “We’ve been able to meet our marks at those locations, so there’s no reason not to move ahead.”
Compton said the cashless sites have been averaging nearly the same collection rate as toll booths: about 92%, with 83% of payments by E-ZPass and 9% via Toll By Plate. Five percent of the remainder are Toll By Plate motorists who haven’t paid and 3% are unbillable.
The turnpike currently loses some money at toll booths when motorists without E-ZPass drive through the cashless lane and refuse to pay mailed bills.
Turnpike workers have had more than five years to prepare, and most of those displaced so far have been transferred to vacant positions elsewhere in the system. Layoffs are expected in the next round of changes.
When the tollway goes cashless, turnpike employment is projected to be about 1,300, down from about 1,900.
“We’re no longer able to guarantee jobs after January 2022,” Compton said. “Understanding these people have families, we’ve tried to do what we can to help them prepare.”
For several years, workers whose jobs will be eliminated have been eligible for up to $5,250 a year in tuition credits to take classes to qualify for other turnpike or state jobs or study for a new career.
“We get it. It’s part of technology,” said Dan Kozel, business agent for Teamsters Local 250 in Pittsburgh, which represents toll collectors in the west. “We’d rather have our people working. But they did look out for them by offering training.”
Kozel said the union is skeptical the turnpike will get planned savings by staff cuts because he expects more out-of-state drivers without E-ZPass to refuse to pay. The agency has had a difficult time enforcing violations because many states won’t turn in their drivers.
Compton said the turnpike expects to have mainline gantries to replace toll booths at exits in eastern Pennsylvania by 2022, followed by the central section in 2024 and the west in 2026. The eastern section already has fiber-optic systems to transmit transponder reports and license photographs; those improvements will occur in the other sections as the turnpike eliminates toll booths.
The locations of the gantries for the east already are being designed and a construction contract is expected to be awarded in late summer. There will be one gantry at each site instead of two because new technology allows a transponder receiver and license-plate camera on the same platform.
Once the gantries are installed, the turnpike will remove the toll booths and redesign many exits so traffic uses only two lanes.