Ever rising turnpike tolls virtual certainty

In the 1700s, Benjamin Franklin quipped: “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.”

Today he’d have to add: and annual Pennsylvania turnpike toll increases.

Drivers on the Pennsylvania toll road system are shelling out more starting today as the latest rate increases kick in – largely because of mandated quarterly payments to PennDOT.

And prices are almost certain to continue to rise in the years ahead.

Those who pay with cash are shelling out the most. Cash fares rose 10 percent across the turnpike system as the clock struck 12:01 this morning.

Those using E-ZPass transponders to pay their tolls will only see a 2 percent fare increase as part of a continuing effort by the Turnpike Commission to encourage drivers to adopt the electronic payment system.

The fifth annual toll increase means drivers paying cash are shelling out about 70 percent more than they did in 2008, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports. E-ZPass users are paying about 35 percent more.

In a press release, the commission noted that E-ZPass customers now pay about 25 percent less than those paying with cash. The commission plans to switch to an all-electronic tolling system, which will eliminate the need for human toll takers and reduce pollution from vehicles slowing down or stopping to pay tolls.

But even electronic tolling isn’t likely to stop the annual increases, largely stemming from Act 44 of 2007. That law now requires the Turnpike Commission to make payments of $450 million a year to PennDOT to support mass transit and road and bridge repairs. Because the payments originally were double the current rate, the commission has sent $3.6 billion to PennDOT since 2007.

The commission is borrowing money to make those payments, greatly increasing its debt. That’s an issue outgoing state Auditor General Jack Wagner has highlighted in the past year.

The commission’s debt has grown from $2.5 billion in 2007 to $7.8 billion in 2012, Wagner told state lawmakers in November.

And that debt is expected to continue to grow to $20 billion because under Act 44 the commission has to make the annual payments to PennDOT until 2057. As that debt grows, so will turnpike tolls.

To put the size of the payments to PennDOT in perspective, the commission’s operating revenue in the last fiscal year was $803 million, according to its annual report. It cost $387 million that year to operate the toll roads and $368 million was spent on bonds and interests. With other costs and depreciation, the commission went $560 million in the hole in that year alone.

Paying that off will take many more years of toll increases. In fact the 2012 annual report states: “The Commission plans to continue to increase toll rates annually and to issue debt for the foreseeable future to finance these payments” to PennDOT.

Finding a way to wean PennDOT off relying on the $450 million in annual payments will be difficult, but for the longtime financial stability of the commission and the chance to break the string of annual toll increases, lawmakers need to try.

Otherwise, drivers will be digging deeper and deeper into their pockets each year.