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Pa. Turnpike tolls to rise 25 pct. in January

Tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike will increase about 25 percent on Jan. 4, and then go up about 3 percent every January, turnpike officials said today.

Tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike will increase about 25 percent on Jan. 4, and then go up about 3 percent every January, turnpike officials said today.

The additional money will be used for turnpike improvements and to repay billions borrowed for highway, bridge and mass transit projects around the state, said Joseph Brimmeier, chief executive of the Turnpike Commission.

The increase means the toll for a car traveling the 359-mile turnpike from the Ohio border to the New Jersey border will be $28.45, up from the current $22.75. The same trip for a 40,000-pound, five-axle truck will cost $92.50, up from the current $74.

A car trip the length of the Northeast extension from Mid-County to Clarks Summit will cost $7.90 instead of $6.25.

The last toll increase was a 42 percent hike in 2004. The new increase will be the sixth since the turnpike opened in 1940, charging a penny a mile.

Higher tolls on the turnpike were part of a two-pronged plan enacted by the State Legislature in 2007 to fund transportation projects around Pennsylvania. But the other half of the plan, tolls on Interstate 80, fell through when the Federal Highway Administration didn't permit tolling of I-80.

The turnpike commission is required to provide $2.5 billion for statewide transportation projects from 2007 to 2010. It has already borrowed $1.2 billion of that money and will borrow the rest in the next year.

"The turnpike commission's mission has obviously changed in the last year," Brimmeier said. "We are now supplying billions of dollars for transportation statewide."

In the next decade, the turnpike commission will borrow about $4.6 billion to pay for its own improvements and at least $5.7 billion to pay for statewide projects. The money to pay back that $10 billion, plus interest, will come from the ever-higher tolls on the turnpike.

And the issue of tolling I-80 is not dead, Brimmeier said. He said an Obama administration might be more receptive to the idea, and he said he will meet with state legislative leaders early next year to decide whether to again seek federal permission to place tolls on I-80.

"Tolling of roads is going to be the future . . . all across America," Brimmeier said.

The increased tolls will raise the annual revenue from turnpike tolls by about $120 million, to $738 million.

The turnpike commission is counting on increased traffic to help meet its financial goals, but traffic has actually declined in recent months, because of higher fuel prices and the weakening economy.

"We certainly hope the trend we're seeing of declining traffic the last couple of months will stop soon," Brimmeier said.

To reduce expenses, the turnpike commission has laid off 21 workers, accepted early retirements from 20 others and left 20-some jobs vacant, he said. He said that has reduced costs by about 10 percent.

Critics of the turnpike commission were quick to attack the toll increases.

"It is interesting that while Gov. Rendell is withholding pay increases from 13,000 state workers, Joe Brimmeier is raising tolls on Pennsylvanians by 25 percent while keeping a salary that is already higher than the governor's," said Matthew J. Brouillette, president of the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives, a conservative think tank in Harrisburg. "Doesn't he feel our pain?"

Brimmeier's annual salary is $178,000.

A spokeswoman for AAA MidAtlantic motorists' group said: "We have not taken a direct position on this toll increase, but recognize the need for a major infusion of transportation funds. One toll increase on one facility doesn't begin to address needs. We prefer a more comprehensive approach."

Rendell sought this year to lease the turnpike to a private, Spanish-U.S. consortium for $12.8 billion, but the legislature refused. Brimmeier hailed that decision today, saying the state would have lost billions by investing the lease payment in current financial markets.