Drivers claim Pennsylvania Turnpike toll hikes are ‘highway robbery’
Elizabeth Zemba of Mt. Pleasant, a daily Pennsylvania Turnpike traveler, turned to art and creativity to express frustration with the highway’s ever-rising tolls.
She created an Internet meme.
A photo of a turnpike tollbooth is overlaid with the logo: “Pennsylvania Turnpike re-inventing highway robbery since 2009.”
For many, annual turnpike toll increases simply have become too much to bear.
Two weeks ago, a coalition of truckers and motorists advocates filed a class action suit against the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, PennDOT and Gov. Tom Wolf, seeking to recoup “excessive fees” that went to underwrite projects other than the operation of the turnpike. Such fees, they claimed, were a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause.
The truckers groups contend federal interstate commerce laws specify that turnpike tolls can only be used to maintain or expand the 359-mile highway.
For decades, the turnpike was the perfect place for powerful Pennsylvania lawmakers to park politically connected friends and contractors.
Court archives and various independent investigations detail the history of corruption, nepotism and cronyism in the operations of America’s first superhighway from 1957 through 2014.
But it wasn’t until 2007 that state lawmakers, reluctant to pass new taxes or lease the turnpike to a private bidder, added what some travelers refer to as highway robbery to the mix when they passed Act 44. The act required the commission to divert at least $450 million a year to PennDOT for the next 50 years.
The plan called for tolling Interstate 80, which the federal government later rejected. However, the annual payments to PennDOT are continuing.
“The hikes would be far more palatable if the cash were needed solely to fund turnpike upkeep and improvements, but that apparently is not the case,” Zemba said.
Pat Riggle said the yearly fare hikes have become cost prohibitive for business.
Riggle’s P&B Transportation has 50 big rigs that haul coal, steel and gravel across the eastern U.S. from its Westmoreland County hub in Washington Township. When tolls increased 25 percent in 2009—the first of 10 annual increases that would send tolls soaring by more than 50 percent by Jan. 1, 2018, Riggle said enough was enough.
“We used to use it a good bit,” he said of the turnpike. “We always try to take the most practical route. But 2009 just finished us off. I just can’t afford it. It takes too much money out.”
Now his drivers heading east take Route 22 to Route 99 to Route 70. Those going to Chicago take Route 356 to Route 28 to Route 422 to Interstate 80 to Youngstown.
At the time, Act 44 garnered a ton of political support. The bill passed 129-74 in the House and 30-19 in the Senate.
*Lawmakers worried about the next election didn’t have to raise taxes.
*Mass transit and highway programs got a new infusion of cash.
*Bankers, lawyers and bond consultants who contribute generously to political campaigns reaped millions of dollars in fees for bonds the commission issued to cover maintenance, construction and its new obligation to Penn DOT.
The only losers were travelers hit with a 56 percent increase in tolls, nearly four times the consumer price index increase between 2008 and 2018.
The original toll for turnpike travel was about 1.1 cent per mile. Prior to 2007 the turnpike had increased tolls only five times; in 1969, 1978, 1987, 1991 and 2004. But that was when the turnpike was just underwriting, operations, and maintenance and expansion projects.
Imposing higher tolls annually for 35 years (2009-2044) truly is ridiculous: Truckers sue over ‘excessive’ @Pa_Turnpike toll increases https://t.co/jfZo3R2Lwr Via @NewsNatasha @TribLIVE pic.twitter.com/wINRFi3c0e
— Liz Zemba (@LizZemba) March 17, 2018
After 2007, acting on its new mission to raise money for PennDOT’s mass transit and highway projects, the commission turned to Wall Street to issue billions in new bonds. The first of many new bond issues passed under Act 44 totaled $275 million. Bond documents show bankers, lawyers and consultants who worked on the issue received $2.75 million for their services.
The bonded debt increased from $3.8 billion in 2008 to $12.6 billion last year, as the commission borrowed to meet its costs as well as its $450 million a year obligation to the state.
As of Jan. 2018, records show the turnpike had paid $5.9 billion to the state.
The bankers, lawyers and consultants on bond issues pocketed millions in fees. At an average cost of .5 to 1 percent per issue, the fees alone on $6 billion in bonded debt could have added up to anywhere from $30 to $60 million over the last decade.
Turnpike travelers would be paying it off for decades. But no one could accuse the legislators who backed Act 44 of raising taxes.
“We went from bonds going to financing projects to the project being the bonds. Every time I travel the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I wonder where it went,” said Carnegie Mellon University economist Robert Strauss.
In an era of anti-tax sentiment, others have considered Pennsylvania’s arrangement and weighed the odds.
In 2013, Ohio lawmakers passed a bill to increase the cap on the Ohio Turnpike’s debt to raise $1.5 billion over 10 years for its infrastructure programs. Ultimately they agreed to let the turnpike raise tolls 2.7 percent a year over a decade to keep up with those payments, said Brian Newbacher of the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission.
Even so, tolls remain low by Pennsylvania standards. The east to west toll for a passenger car traveling the 241-mile length of the Ohio Turnpike is $12.75 with EZ-Pass or about 5.3 cents per mile, compared with the 10.9 cents per mile on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
In Kansas, a bill to invoke a Pennsylvania-type plan ultimately turned into a legislative mandate for the turnpike and the Kansas Department of Transportation to engage in more cooperative ventures to reduce costs. Auto tolls there average 4.4 cents per mile.
Back in Pennsylvania, many still grit their teeth and travel the road that winds through mountain ranges and tunnels while paying the exorbitant fees.
Murrysville resident Ron Klink, a lobbyist, who uses the turnpike for frequent trips to Washington, D.C., considers the condition of the road when comparing it to other routes.
“Lanes are expanded, new bridges, etc. and it’s always the first road plowed and salted. Expensive, but I keep using it for convenience,” said Klink, a former Westmoreland County congressman.
State Rep. Joe Markosek, D-Monroeville, who headed the House Transportation Committee at the time lawmakers hit upon the idea to soak turnpike travelers couldn’t say enough about it.
“Act 44 is very innovative, and I don’t think we’ve gotten enough credit for that,” he said, brushing off critics at the time.
Markosek conceded that the law did guarantee some toll increases on the turnpike, but went on to add, “we don’t raise fuel taxes at all or raise registration or licensing fees.”
Within six years that changed.
Barry Schoch, who was secretary of transportation from 2011-2014,under former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, was among those challenged to find a solution to the endless toll increases that were diverted to fund other transportation needs.
“There is a tipping point where the toll price exceeds what users will pay and we were about at that point where they were seeing a drop in traffic where others were seeing increase,” Schoch said.
Schoch said earmarking a steady stream of revenue for infrastructure is a better option than relying on endless bond issues that will be passed on for years.
Ultimately in 2013, a coalition of lawmakers passed a bill that would fund transportation needs through changes in the wholesale gas franchise tax and an increase in vehicle registration. The bill also decreased the turnpike’s $450 million annual payment to the state to $50 million by 2023.
Turnpike records suggest Schoch was right about that tipping point.
While many truckers continue to travel the Pennsylvania Turnpike, reports show declining commercial traffic has taken a bite out of commercial revenue
Tolls from commercial traffic made up 44.55 percent of turnpike toll revenue in 2009. That fell to 42.71 percent in 2017. In 2009, passenger cars made up 53.15 percent of toll revenue, compared to 57.29 in 2017.
“That’s why we ended it. We knew that. We knew there was a need. That creates a hole in the general fund. It means the legislature will have a $400 million hole to fill,” Schoch said.
While that may bode slightly better times for travelers in the future, costs incurred to date aren’t going away anytime soon. Those bonds the commission has been issuing to meet its obligations will be coming due at various dates between now and 2047.
Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or [email protected] or via Twitter @deberdley_trib