Turnpike Tolls Are Up, But Where Does the Money Go?
Pennies on the Dollar: The Pennsylvania Turnpike spends more money on debt than on maintenance.
By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike went up again this year – but where are those dollars going?
About 60 cents of every dollar handed over at the toll booth goes toward paying down different sources of debt and financing road projects.
Of that figure, 42 cents goes toward paying off debt and funding “pay-as-you-go” improvements on the highway itself, according to data from the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission for fiscal year 2012.
The other 18 cents goes to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. A state law passed in 2007, Act 44, requires the turnpike to make annual payments to PennDOT. Contributions have ranged from $900 million in 2010 to the current annual rate of $450 million, in place until 2057 save a repeal of the law. Funds support public transit projects and off-turnpike roads and bridges.
To date, the turnpike has paid $3.6 billion to the state under Act 44, according to commission records. Between those payments and turnpike debt service, 37 cents of every turnpike toll dollar goes toward paying off debt.
Total debt has more than doubled since passage of Act 44. In 2007, the turnpike’s total debt was about $2.9 billion. Today, it totals more than $8 billion, according to outgoing Auditor General Jack Wagner, who released a turnpike audit last week as one of his last moves as the state’s fiscal watchdog.
Among other recommendations, Wagner called for a repeal of Act 44 to keep the turnpike from drowning in debt — and continuing to pass the burden along to motorists.
“No entity can continue to operate with significant increases in long-term debt and the continued serious depletion of assets caused by Act 44,” Wagner said. “It is time to rescue the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission by repealing Act 44.”
Since Act 44 passed, the commission has raised tolls five times. This year, prices went up 10 percent for cash-paying customers and 2 percent for those with an E-Z Pass. Traveling the full 360 miles of the turnpike now costs $39.15 for cash customers and $30.77 for E-Z Pass users.
Officials at the turnpike commission acknowledged in their response to Wagner’s audit that the toll increase of 2013 is ”necessary to finance the cumulative impact” of Act 44 payments.
But they’ve also maintained that the long-term debt is self-sustaining.
In the response to the audit, PTC Acting Chief Executive Officer Craig R. Shuey said the commission is committed to fiscal responsibility.
The commission, Shuey said, is looking to reduce operational costs and achieve “long-term system benefits” by shifting toward new technologies, rebuilding the highway and improving maintenance.
“Under the leadership of our commissioners, the Turnpike is currently engaging in multiple reform efforts aimed at reducing our fiscal footprint,” Shuey said.
The focus of the turnpike’s infrastructure projects are reconstruction and widening projects, rebuilding the highway from the ground up and expanding from four to six lanes.
But certainly, the turnpike has things to pay for other than debt service and building up roads.
After the debt and capital improvement costs, the remaining 40 cents of each turnpike toll dollar goes toward operating expenses:
- 12 cents pays for cash toll collections/E-Z Pass administration.
- 10 cents goes toward nonpayroll employee benefits, like health insurance and pensions.
- Between 7 and 8 cents pays for turnpike maintenance.
- About 5 cents funds Pennsylvania State Police and safety costs.
- 6 cents goes toward other departmental costs.
Turnpike officials have said they made E-Z Pass rate increases lower than those for cash because the electronic transactions cost less to handle than cash fare collections, 3 cents for E-Z pass compared to 8 cents for cash.
Contact Melissa Daniels at firstname.lastname@example.org.