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Ludicrous legislation takes toll on Pennsylvania Turnpike

GTRTOLLCOLLECTORS091315
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
A toll collector works in a booth at the Monroeville turnpike interchange on Friday, Sept. 4, 2015.

Slam on the brakes.

That’s what state lawmakers want to do to increasingly frequent instances of motorists skirting payment of Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls.

The problem wouldn’t be nearly as prevalent had many of those same legislators years ago taken a detour around the lame-brain idea that directly resulted in turnpike travel becoming significantly more costly. How costly? Pretty soon only Saudi Arabian sheiks will be able to afford the outrageous tolls, though those guys probably prefer to fly their personal planes from Pittsburgh to Breezewood.

Those lacking private jet transportation sidestep the tolls in renegade fashion. They fly through toll booth areas without paying, despite the fact photos of their license plates are taken to make them easily identifiable scofflaws.

The Turnpike Commission lost $5.4 million last year to Chevy Suburban outlaws, so the state Senate is considering legislation that would punish toll cheats. The proposed law would permit PennDOT to suspend a motorist’s registration until outstanding tolls are paid.

That would treat the problem’s symptom but not address its cause: tolls are too pricey.

The Turnpike Commission last month approved a 6 percent toll increase beginning in January. It’s the ninth straight year tolls have risen, but there’s light at the end of an extremely long tunnel.

Commission officials have predicted annual toll hikes of as much as 6 percent will only be necessary until 2044. By then, the E-ZPass will be a microchip not mounted on the inside of your windshield but implanted directly beneath your left earlobe.

The toll hikes are needed because of an ill-conceived law passed in 2007 that requires the Turnpike Commission to pay PennDOT $450 million a year to help fund mass transit and pay for infrastructure improvements. (The amount drops to $50 million annually in 2023.)

At the time, Turnpike Commission officials essentially said, “Four hundred and fifty million? You think there’s turnpike treasure buried underneath the New Stanton service plaza?”

“Not at all,” legislative leaders effectively replied. “The same law requiring the PennDOT payments authorizes you to toll Interstate 80 in northern Pennsylvania. Balance your books on the backs of truck drivers.”

“Wait,” Turnpike Commission officials said. “It’s illegal to use tolls collected on a federal interstate for anything other than the operation and maintenance of that interstate.”

“Really?” legislative leaders said. “Wow. We really should have researched this thing a bit better.”

The feds predictably nixed the plan, but the Turnpike Commission remained on the hook for the PennDOT payments. Toll increases alone are not nearly enough to pay for them, so the commission has been borrowing money at ridiculous levels. About two-thirds of its $980 million budget is dedicated to paying down debt.

Nine years after its passage, the illegal I-80 legislation just isn’t turning motorists into scofflaws. It has the Turnpike Commission well on the road to bankruptcy.

Nine years later, this ludicrous law continues to exact an absurdly high, well, toll.

Eric Heyl is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7857 or [email protected].

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