A $1,200 toll on the Pennsylvania Turnpike?
It's right there, on the new toll schedules that take effect Sunday: A Class 9 vehicle that travels the length of the main turnpike owes $1,237.05 in cash. But that's for a truck weighing more than 100,000 pounds.
Drivers of passenger cars who make the same trek will pay $30.80 traveling west and $35.55 going east as a 10 percent increase in cash tolls - the fourth in four years - kicks in. Motorists who have E-ZPass are being spared any increase, as the Turnpike Commission continues to encourage use of the electronic toll collection method that is now in the vehicles of more than 60 percent of turnpike patrons. A cross-state trip with E-ZPass costs $26.19 westbound and $30.17 eastbound.
Eastbound motorists pay their first toll at the Pennsylvania state line; westbound motorists pay their last toll at the Warrendale plaza.
The toll increase that took effect last January - 10 percent for cash customers and 3 percent for E-ZPass - made the Pennsylvania Turnpike the nation's most expensive long toll road per mile. It will lose that status on Sunday, when the New Jersey Turnpike implements a 53 percent toll increase.
Still, the turnpike's 9.24-cents-per-mile cost for car drivers who pay cash is significantly above what is charged on the Ohio Turnpike (6.8 cents after a 10 percent cash toll increase takes effect Sunday), the Indiana Toll Road (5.7 cents), and the New York Thruway (4.6 or 5.6 cents depending on direction of travel).
With its toll increase, the New Jersey Turnpike appears to reign supreme with a per-mile cost of 11.4 cents.
Pennsylvania Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo cited two main factors driving up tolls. The turnpike is legally obligated to give $450 million a year to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, $200 million of which finances non-turnpike road projects and $250 million that goes to mass transit.
There's also the turnpike's advanced age - it turns 72 this year. "The turnpike is 15 years older, at least, than the other interstates in Pennsylvania," DeFebo said. "We're investing a bit more in our own system." This year, the turnpike expects to spend $456 million on construction and upgrades.
The payments to PennDot are required under Act 44, passed by the legislature in 2007 in hopes of filling a shortfall in transportation investment in the commonwealth. Since it took effect, the turnpike has relinquished more than $3 billion, the equivalent of nearly four years' worth of toll revenue.
Act 44 envisioned tolls on I-80. When the federal government said no, the turnpike's obligation to PennDot was slashed from more than $900 million annually to the current $450 million. Still, the turnpike has had to borrow repeatedly to comply with Act 44 and has rung up nearly $1.4 billion in debt, meaning annual January toll increases are likely for years to come.
It has become customary for toll agencies to give a price break to E-ZPass users. Two years ago, Pennsylvania Turnpike users paid the same with E-ZPass as cash. With the adjustments on Jan. 2 of this year and this coming Sunday, cash users will pay around 18 percent more.
The price break for E-ZPass users is even bigger in Ohio (47 percent) and Indiana (94 percent). DeFebo said the commission has moved cautiously because it doesn't want to have to rescind any discounts, but "you'll likely see that gap [between cash and E-ZPass] widening" in the future.
The turnpike is not trying to coerce drivers to enroll in E-ZPass, he said, but wants to provide incentives because of the program's benefits to all involved. For drivers, it means the convenience of not fumbling with cash and coins; it reduces congestion at toll plazas (E-ZPass lanes have a capacity of 1,200 vehicles per hour compared with 300 in cash lanes); and it cuts the turnpike's collection costs ($1 to process a cash toll, 25 cents for an E-ZPass transaction).
The Sunday cash toll increase also will take effect on other turnpike-owned highways, including the Mon-Fayette Expressway, Toll 66, and a section of the Beaver Valley Expressway. Toll rates on the Findlay Connector near Pittsburgh International Airport will not change.
E-ZPass users place transponders in their vehicles and have prepaid accounts from which money is deducted whenever they pass a tolling point. They can opt to have their accounts automatically replenished with a credit card when the balance dips below $10. In addition to tolls, they are charged a $6 annual administration fee.