Another year, another toll increase on the Pennsylvania Turnpike – a trend drivers will likely withstand for another three decades amid bleak traffic and revenue projections, according to a new report.
The Allegheny Institute for Public Policy said the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission will raise tolls through 2050 as it falls deeper into a financial hole exacerbated by its $450 million annual commitment to PennDOT and the pandemic’s impact on travel, likely to last years.
And the Turnpike Commission, itself, doesn’t deny the source of its financial woes. CEO Mark Compton said this year’s 6 percent increase on all tolls is a result of its legislative obligation to make quarterly payments to PennDOT via Act 44 of 2007. The commission has paid the agency more than $7 billon in the last 13 years to fund maintenance of roads, bridges and mass transit, he said.
The original plan conceived by Act 44 involved the Turnpike Commission leasing Interstate 80 from PennDOT for $900 million each year. When federal approval for the plan fell through, however, the payment was halved. But without an additional road to toll, the commission faced little choice other than raising tolls every year until 2057. A 2013 revision reduced the commission’s payment to $50 million in 2023.
Still, the situation will strain the Turnpike Commission’s finances as its debt has grown from $2.5 billion in 2007 to nearly $15 billion as of May 31, 2020, said Frank Gamrat, the Allegheny Institute’s executive director.
“The PTC has been placed in an awkward position in having to borrow against toll revenue to meet an obligation to fund mass transit and PennDOT’s road and bridge projects,” he wrote in a policy brief published last week. “The inescapable results are annual toll increases on the turnpike system. This strategy has plunged the PTC deeply into debt.”
Gamrat’s analysis finds that turnpike traffic also plummeted 23.4 percent in 2020 and won’t return to pre-pandemic levels until 2025. The grim picture forced the commission to tighten its budget through reductions in capital expenditures, implementing a hiring freeze, delaying its quarterly payment to PennDOT and laying off nearly 500 fare collectors.
The latter came without warning in June, prompting union leaders to threaten legal action over the commission’s breach of contract.
Gamrat said the personnel changes will help the commission – coupled with reduced payments in the future – but not save travelers from bearing the brunt of the rising debt costs.
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