Turnpike fee increase taking a toll

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is using valid arguments trying to justify the 6 percent toll increase scheduled to go into effect at 12:01 a.m. Jan. 5 on all sections and extensions except three western Pennsylvania “cashless” toll facilities.

Anyone familiar with the facts about why this 11th consecutive annual toll increase is necessary is aware that the state Legislature is the bogeyman really to blame for it, not the commission.

It is the commission, unfortunately, that continues to shoulder most of the blame and anger, however, while lawmakers look away, hoping that most people will remain oblivious to the Legislature’s predominant role in making the toll hikes necessary.

Last November, Gov. Tom Wolf, during an interview on a Pittsburgh radio station, said an “appetite” seemed to exist in Harrisburg to do something related to the financial pressures that the state has imposed on the toll road, but that “something” has turned out — predictably — to be nothing.

For the Legislature, then, the turnpike remains a crutch for a fiscal condition for which the Legislature refuses to pursue meaningful “therapy.”

But there’s something to be questioned about the commission’s reluctance to try to find a creative means for boosting turnpike revenue and decreasing the level of burden imposed by the Legislature in 2007 and 2013.

Now, after 10 straight years of toll increases and the 11th increase less than six months away, the commission might do itself a favor by focusing on increasing turnpike traffic through at least a one-year tolls freeze or even perhaps a small decrease, and proclaiming that decision far and wide to travelers, businesses, transportation companies and bus lines.

There comes a point when less can mean more, and the commission might be at that point.

A freeze or decrease, rather than an 11th increase, might bring back some motorists and companies that have remained turned off to the more costly turnpike-travel experience.

The Legislature performed a great disservice not only to the turnpike but also to the state’s economy by its 2007 and 2013 actions that have caused many people and cargo carriers to avoid the toll road and, even in many cases, the Keystone State as a whole.

For people who don’t recall what happened during those two years, here’s a brief summary:

In 2007, during an attempt to impose tolls on Interstate 80, and naively confident that the plan would receive the required federal approval to increase the size of the turnpike system, the Legislature passed Act 44 that required the commission to provide PennDOT with $450 million annually for highways, bridges and public transit. But when the tolling effort failed, the Legislature, euphoric over that annual “pot of gold” that relieved some transportation-funding pressures from the General Assembly, quietly chose not to repeal the law.

In 2013, the Legislature passed Act 89, which modified the payments required under Act 44, dedicating the full amount to public transit. In 2022, commission payments to PennDOT for transit systems will be reduced to $50 million annually and then $450 million is to be provided from the state’s General Fund.

Whether that “General Fund Factor” will actually materialize is a good question.

The commission says it has delivered $6.6 billion in toll-backed funding to PennDOT during the past dozen years. Motorists who question the reason why the commission has failed to do more to upgrade the “pike” need to understand why.