As the Pennsylvania Turnpike enters into its seventh decade of service, this 545-mile-long magnificent highway is a monument to national pride and the spirit of motoring. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC) oversees 64 fare-collection facilities, 17 service plazas, 22 maintenance facilities and five tunnels. The turnpike also employs more than 2,000 individuals and generates about $710 million in annual toll revenue from the approximately 190 million vehicles that pass through each year.
Since December 2000, the Pennsylvania Turnpike has utilized an electronic toll collection system known as E-Z Pass, which allows motorists to pay a toll without stopping thanks to an electronic device placed on their windshield or dashboard. There are more than 850,000 active E-Z Pass accounts in Pennsylvania with about 68 percent of turnpike motorists using this electronic payment system.
A yearlong study by transportation consultants McCormick Taylor Inc. and Wilbur Smith Associates Inc. have concluded that converting the turnpike into an All-Electronic Toll (AET) collection system is a feasible endeavor. The report recommends replacing the existing network of toll plazas with overhead “gantries” that would straddle the travel lanes near existing interchanges along the turnpike. This will allow motorists to maintain highway speeds, eliminating the need to slow down or stop at toll plazas as well as make the process of collecting tolls safer, faster and less harmful to air quality due to the reduction of vehicles idling at tolls. Furthermore, an all-electronic system would reduce travel time and the cost of collecting tolls.
If the recommendations are implemented, motorists would still be able to use the Pennsylvania Turnpike without registering for E-Z Pass. For those without a transponder, the system would photograph the license plate and mail a bill to the owner of the vehicle. E-Z Pass would continue to be the least expensive option for motorists; currently, E-Z Pass customers pay about 17 percent less than those who pay with cash. However, commission officials have stated that motorists not using an E-Z Pass device in an all AET system would pay 76 percent more than motorists using E-Z Pass. The PTC said this drastic difference in pricing is because billing non E-Z Pass motorists is time consuming and expensive.
At least nine states have all-electronic tolling systems or are implementing them. The price tag for such a conversion to take place in Pennsylvania is estimated to be $319 million. Because this system would cost about a quarter of what it costs to have a toll collector handling cash payments, an AET system would boost revenue by $5 million in the first year and about $21 million in the tenth year.
The PTC is currently taking steps for the next phase of the process. It will soon begin the process of hiring a program-management firm to oversee the next phase of the study and potentially assist the PTC in a future conversion. In the meantime, the PTC would like to reach a goal of having 70 to 75 percent of turnpike users to utilize the E-Z Pass system before a conversion would take place.
A conversion to an all AET system in Pennsylvania would have to take place all at once, rather than in phases, because of the difficult logistics of having part of the turnpike all-electronic and other sections where cash and tickets are still used.
Just as Pennsylvania has advanced forward with the creation of the turnpike, I believe we must constantly be looking for ways to make this system more efficient. As the PTC goes forward with this process, the consultants will have to look at options for the thousands of toll collectors and toll managers that this conversion may affect. Some options could be reassignment and placement in other areas of the turnpike, attrition through retirements, or retraining programs to help ease the impact on these individuals. Furthermore, a conversion to AET would ultimately stimulate Pennsylvania’s economy through job growth for construction related jobs, purchasing of materials, as well as quicker business services from trucking companies travelling through our state.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike still remains an important asset for transportation funding for our state. Act 44 was signed in July 2007 that would have allowed the Turnpike Commission to place a toll on Interstate 80. This would have raised millions each year for transportation issues. In order to convert I-80 into a toll road, the plan needed approval from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Although the FHWA rejected three applications to toll I-80, the turnpike is still required to pay the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) $450 million per year for the next 45 years.
To view the AET feasibility report, please go to the following link: www.paturnpike.com/aet.