Turnpike future plan reasonable

With the advent of E-ZPass was born the question of when electronic tolling would fully replace the traditional employee-manned Pennsylvania Turnpike cash toll booths.

As an article in last Sunday’s Mirror detailed, a tentative timetable now is in place for that to occur – by the year 2020.

It’s unwelcome news for the 800 turnpike employees currently collecting and accounting for cash transactions, but the change reflects responsible reaction by the Turnpike Commission to pressures affecting the toll road, beyond the physical structure of the current toll booths and those who man them.

And, besides those pressures, efficiency, safety and the saving of millions of dollars on toll booth renovation and construction also are at the foundation of the coming change.

Immediate pressures with which the turnpike will continue to deal include keeping tolls at rates that do not prompt a new large-volume exodus of automobile and commercial traffic from the toll road. Already, traffic has a non-toll cross-state alternative in Interstate 80 to the north and non-toll Interstate 68 in northern Maryland, extending from inside West Virginia eastward.

Both of those roads have negatively affected the turnpike’s traffic volume, and increasingly prohibitive turnpike tolls will only exacerbate that situation. A question that already can be asked is how much higher turnpike tolls can be allowed to go, with the seventh consecutive annual toll hike already having been approved for 2015.

Turnpike upgrades have been ongoing, thanks to toll revenue. Those improvements have made the toll road safer and more traveler-friendly.

However, steady toll increases, while being tolerated now by many, aren’t destined to sit well with increasing numbers of travelers and commercial haulers going forward.

Hurting the turnpike on the financial front in addition to the traffic now using free alternative routes was the flawed judgment of state lawmakers when they passed Act 44 seven years ago – a law built around the premise of I-80 becoming a toll road.

There should have been a provision that, if the tolling plan failed, a part of the law requiring $450 million in annual transportation-funding payments by the turnpike to the state would automatically be rescinded. The tolling plan did in fact fail, but the turnpike remains obligated to provide that funding.

Meanwhile, that obligation has limited the scope of turnpike upgrades that otherwise would be possible.

The one good feature of the law is that it made possible the sharing of maintenance costs and use of each other’s resources. It is imperative that efficiencies and cost savings be implemented wherever possible.

That said, the savings from eliminating the turnpike toll collectors, from the standpoint of wages, health care costs and retirement benefits, will be significant.

Regarding the toll booths, it is estimated that the electronic tolling system, which already is being piloted in the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia areas, would produce multimilllion-dollar savings while opening the possibility for additional sites at which vehicles could enter or exit the toll road.

There are unfortunate consequences and “victims” tied to many things new, but what is planned for the turnpike will launch a modern new era for America’s granddaddy of superhighways.