Turnpike may switch to all electronic tolling

Officials from the Pennsylvania Turnpike said Friday they are looking to switch to all electronic tolling by 2020, eliminating the need for existing toll plazas and toll takers.

Craig Shuey, the turnpike’s chief operating officer, said that the tolling switch will need to be completed all at once to avoid bottlenecks. The new system will also allow better and safer traffic flow at interchanges and open the door for more exits, he said.

The switch will save the turnpike money on collecting tolls, Shuey said, as there will be no need for employees at toll booths. About 800 people are employed in collecting and accounting for the cash transactions.

“It’s (electronic tolling) less expensive for the turnpike to collect that way,” he said.

It costs the turnpike about 20 cents to process an E-ZPass transaction versus $1 for a cash transaction.

Turnpike officials are planning for high-speed electronic tolling gantries that would span the road at various points to assess the tolls. This means vehicles won’t have to slow down and eliminates the need for drivers to go through tolling stations when they enter and exit the turnpike.

The tolls either would be paid using a vehicle’s E-ZPass account, or the system would take a photo of a vehicle’s license plate and send a bill to the registered owner, Turnpike CEO Mark Compton said during an interview with the Mirror.

Compton said that turnpike officials are piloting the new interchanges near Philadel-phia and Pittsburgh. The pilots will end next year.

Installing the electronic tolling system will be significantly cheaper than upgrading the existing toll plazas. The toll gantries cost about $5 million, while upgrading the current system would cost about $15 million for each interchange.

For the employees who will be out of a job when the traditional toll booths close, Compton said that turnpike officials are working to find them new jobs in a three-part approach.

“It’s a major transition for them,” he said.

First, the agency will work to train them for other jobs with the turnpike, he said. An example is in maintenance, where between 35 and 40 percent of the employees will be eligible to retire within five years.

Toll booth workers who may be interested in jobs in that sector, Compton said, would have their necessary certification training paid for by the turnpike.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission will also be working with other industries and state agencies to find new jobs for the displaced workers, Compton said. An example of this, he said, is perhaps relocating these workers to work for PennDOT in driver’s license centers. The needed retail experience is similar, he said, and the turnpike would be willing to help the employees meet civil service requirements.

The final strategy, he said, is to make the employees “attractive to private industry” through additional training services, if necessary.

This is part of the turnpike’s closer relationship with PennDOT over the past few years, Compton said. Shuey said that the personalities were right in 2011 for the two to unite on more projects.

Joint ventures will include sharing maintenance costs and utilizing each other’s resources for construction.

William Capone, chief of communications and public relations, also revealed that turnpike toll hikes have reached a place where the future increases will likely be the same for both E-ZPass users and cash customers. The 2015 rates represent a 5 percent increase for both toll rates, according to documents from the turnpike. E-ZPass users will pay about 9 cents per mile, while cash customers will pay almost 13 cents a mile.

This is the seventh consecutive year of toll hikes, Capone said. In previous years, the increases were much greater on the occasional driver. In 2014, cash ticket tolls were increased by 12 percent, while E-ZPass tolls were only increase by 2 percent.

Legislation requiring the turnpike commission to give PennDOT $450 a million a year and a larger capital program are helping to fuel the hikes. The turnpike has been borrowing money to make the PennDOT payments. The turnpike commission plans to rebuild about 12 miles a year of the roadway, expanding it, when possible, to six lanes with wider shoulders and medians.

Shuey said that turnpike officials were looking to create the rate ratio between the E-ZPass and cash fares and that the rate percentages are likely to be equal for both now that the number has been achieved.

He said about 80 percent of turnpike users have an E-ZPass account, and officials want to see that number increase. E-ZPass tags can be purchased at local retailers or online, he said.