Pa. Turnpike looks at much higher non-E-ZPass rates

Motorists leave the turnpike toll plaza in King of Prussia. The turnpike is moving toward doing away with toll booths and instead charging drivers as they pass at highway speed under gantries equipped with electronic readers and cameras. For those without E-ZPass, cameras would photograph their plates and bills would be mailed. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)

Better get that E-ZPass.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike's plan for all-electronic tolling envisions a 76 percent surcharge for motorists who don't use E-ZPass devices. That means a trip across Pennsylvania from Ohio to New Jersey that costs $30.17 with E-ZPass would cost $53.10 for a driver who would be billed by mail.

The turnpike is moving to do away with all toll booths and instead charge drivers as they pass at highway speed under overhead gantries equipped with electronic readers and cameras.

The move is probably at least five years down the road because of the time required to install the equipment, reconfigure on- and off-ramps, and get legislative authority to penalize scofflaws by suspending their car registrations. Pennsylvania also needs to make cross-border deals with neighboring states, such as New Jersey and Ohio, to bill their residents who don't use E-ZPass.

"The financial feasibility is based on a robust violations-enforcement, legal, and administrative framework," said a new study on installing all-electronic tolling prepared for the Turnpike Commission by transportation consultants McCormick Taylor and Wilbur Smith Associates.

The report estimated it would cost $320 million to install all-electronic tolling on the turnpike, and about $83 million a year to operate it.

All-electronic tolling would save money by eliminating the cost of toll collectors - currently $65 million a year.

Officials for Teamsters Local 77 in Fort Washington, which represents turnpike toll collectors, could not be reached for comment on the proposal to replace toll-takers with electronics.

In addition, turnpike officials say, all-electronic tolling would improve safety, reduce travel time, reduce air pollution, and improve efficiency.

But success depends on widespread use of E-ZPass by motorists and truckers. Electronic billing is easy, but non-E-ZPass billing is time-consuming and expensive. Vehicles' license plates are video-photographed, and the vehicles' owners are billed by mail. It then takes three months to collect about half of those pay-by-mail tolls, and many of the rest go unpaid, other all-electronic tolling agencies have found.

"The underlying assumption ... is that the video surcharges themselves should be set to recoup potential lost revenue from unrecoverable video toll transactions," the report says.

Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo said the surcharge might be lower than 76 percent, depending on future traffic and revenue projections.

"That would be the upper limit," DeFebo said. "It's reflective of the higher cost of collecting tolls" of non-E-ZPass users.

Even with a 76 percent surcharge, the turnpike would collect about $35 million less with all-electronic tolling than with the current system in its first year, $935 million vs. $970 million, the report says. But since costs are estimated to be $40 million lower, the net result would be a $5 million gain for the turnpike, the study says.

E-ZPass users already get an average 17.5 percent discount over cash toll payers on the turnpike. About 68 percent of turnpike users pay with E-ZPass now.

This year, the Turnpike Commission plans to hire a program-management firm to oversee the next phase of its move toward all-electronic tolling. The company's job will be to design an all-electronic system, develop license-plate tolling methods, and run a "public outreach" program to persuade motorists to get E-ZPass.

Jenny Robinson, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the motorists' association supports the use of E-ZPass and sells the electronic transponders in AAA stores. But she said a 76 percent surcharge "seems a little high."

"We're fine with a price differential, because we understand it costs more to collect cash, but if it's really 76 percent, I can't say we'd be in favor of that," she said.

Jim Runk, president of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, said the benefits of electronic tolling "far outweigh" the negatives for truckers who use the turnpike.

"If you can keep running without stopping to pay tolls, it's definitely an advantage," Runk said. "A very high percentage of our members have E-ZPass, and it would behoove people who don't have it to get it. It's the wave of the future - you either use E-ZPass or you pay a penalty."

However, Norita Taylor, spokeswoman for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said the surcharge is "a huge burden for truckers. ... There is no justification for that high of a surcharge."

A 76 percent surcharge would mean a four-axle truck that pays $50.40 with E-ZPass to cross Pennsylvania would pay $88.70 without it.

E-ZPass is not a company, but a consortium of tolling agencies in the Northeast. The different tolling agencies, including the Turnpike Commission, work together to develop and use compatible tolling technology, but they contract separately with private companies to provide the technology, collect the money, and dun the violators.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike pays TransCore, of Hummelstown, Pa., $9.1 million a year to handle its E-ZPass transactions. TransCore is a wholly owned subsidiary of Roper Industries.


Contact Paul Nussbaum

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