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Exploring turnpike alternatives

No one can say for sure if, or by how much, another 5% Pennsylvania Turnpike toll increase would impact traffic volume. For the second time this month, the Turnpike Commission cut from its agenda a vote that would have authorized such an increase.

Annual toll hikes have been imposed since 2009, the negative fallout from an unsuccessful state effort to toll Interstate 80.

Because that tolling, if successful, presumably would have pumped money into the turnpike’s coffers, the Legislature inserted a requirement that the turnpike, through 2021, make a $450 million annual payment from its revenues to the state Department of Transportation to help cover its costs for transit and other operations.

However, when that tolling did not materialize, state lawmakers opted not to kill the $450 million annual-payments requirement, obviously to remove a significant burden from the Legislature to find that amount of money to help annually fund the state transportation agency.

The commission made its final $450 million payment last July. Under provisions of a 2013 state law, the annual payment from the commission is now $50 million, a requirement that will continue until 2057.

That 2013 law authorizes PennDOT to replace the $400 million in annual lost revenue with money from vehicle sales tax revenues. Meanwhile, the commission is faced with what it says is $14 billion in debt, due mainly to the payments-to-PennDOT requirement.

But the real unknown is how much the 13 years of annual toll increases have already cost the turnpike because of motorists’ and trucking companies’ decision to use toll-free highways like I-80 and how much that loss would increase by a 14th-consecutive-year increase, although, based on other news emerging from the national economy, that loss might be non-existent or negligible.

The Wall Street Journal reported on May 22 that U.S. shoppers boosted spending at department stores and discount chains, “showing resilience amid inflationary pressures that have weighed on consumers and dented results at many big retail chains.”

However, the Journal reported on June 6 a shift by shoppers from spending on casual clothes and home items that had been in demand during the pandemic.

“Inflation is prompting consumers to spend more on necessities like food and fuel at the same time that they are funneling more of their disposable income to experiences like travel, entertainment and dining out,” the Journal said.

Despite its debt load, perhaps the commission should be looking in another direction — to expanding its revenue stream by expanding the toll road system.

One possibility could be a toll road connecting I-80 to Route 219 near Ebensburg and ultimately the original west-to-east turnpike at Somerset ­– a leg that also would funnel traffic to Route 22 and ultimately I-99 in Blair County and points eastward.

The new toll road, which also could create a new, vibrant economic corridor, would benefit traffic traveling to and from places like northern Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota and Ontario currently inconvenienced by the configuration of current routes.

A wild idea? Maybe.

But not something to be dismissed outrightly with so much potential revenue and economic benefit at stake.

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