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Pennsylvania Turnpike toll hike will be just one of many

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Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
Vehicles pass through a toll plaza on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Marshall Township, Wednesday, July 8, 2015.
PTRTURNPIKE03070915
Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
Vehicles pass through a toll plaza on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Marshall Township, Wednesday, July 8, 2015.
PTRTURNPIKE01070915
Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
Vehicles pass through a toll plaza on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Marshall Township, Wednesday, July 8, 2015.
PTRTURNPIKE02070915
Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
Vehicles pass through a toll plaza on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Marshall Township, Wednesday, July 8, 2015.

The cost to drive from one end of the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the other more than doubled in the past decade, a cost that will continue to rise as roadway funding needs increase statewide.

Drivers paid $21.40 to make the 359-mile trip from the Ohio line to the Delaware River in 2004. By 2014, the cash toll was $44. Next year, the cost will go up again, to $48.90.

A 6 percent increase in tolls along America’s first superhighway is coming in January, positioning it for the highest toll rates in its 75-year history. The increase applies to cash tolls and E-ZPass fares, which are discounted and used by about 75 percent of turnpike travelers.

Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo said the commission decided on a 6 percent increase after considering both mandated payments to the state and long-term construction goals.

Since 2007, the agency has paid $450 million to PennDOT annually to help pay for road repairs — and tolls have gone up every year since 2009. Along with announcing the toll hike, Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission Chairman Sean Logan predicted increases for the next 30 years.

“There is a reasonable concern about how long this can continue,” DeFebo said. “What’s important to understand is that we have to make these payments, the law is for the greater good.”

Those state payments will decrease over time, to $50 million in 2023. But DeFebo said even if the payments ended tomorrow, the turnpike would still have to raise tolls for some time to cover existing debt.

Toll collections, by far the largest revenue stream for the agency, have beat projections in recent years. Favorable gas prices and some favorable weather have played a role, DeFebo said. Revenue is expected to approach $1 billion this year.

The commission would consider slowing down its own improvements to reduce future increases, DeFebo said.

The 550-mile system receives wear and tear from an average of 531,000 vehicles daily, and the turnpike has about 336 miles of roadway that must be rebuilt from the ground up and widened from four lanes to six as part of a long-term capital plan.

More than $600 million is spent on projects each year, according to turnpike estimates.

Pennsylvania is one of 35 states with at least one tolled highway or bridge, which collectively brought in $13 billion in revenue in 2013. The turnpike is the fourth-largest toll road in the country by mileage, and the fifth-largest by revenue, according to the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association. In 2013, tolls brought in $812 million, behind the New Jersey Turnpike Authority’s $1.4 billion, but more than tolling agencies in Florida, New York and the Bay Area.

Joshua Schank, president and CEO at the Eno Center for Transportation think tank in Washington, said it’s easier for agencies to raise tolls on roads like the turnpike that connect cities versus commuter roads. Politicians tend to beat down increases that their constituents might feel targeted by, he said, while connectors like the turnpike draw non-resident traffic.

Almost 87 percent of turnpike traffic is passenger vehicles, and the rest is commercial trucks or buses.

Schank said drivers who begin to feel priced out by the turnpike could try to find alternatives. After the toll hike was announced Tuesday, the Allegheny County Airport Authority tweeted about its regional flights to Altoona and Johnstown out of Pittsburgh.

“People are pretty equally disdainful of tolls as they are taxes,” Schank said.

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or [email protected].

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