If drivers in the Philadelphia region consider their commutes expensive, perhaps the silver lining is that the New Jersey and Pennsylvania turnpikes raised the most revenue of any toll roads in North America in 2012, according to a new analysis.
Or maybe not.
The New Jersey Turnpike raised $992 million from toll collections last year and, after operating expenses of $378 million, the state highway cleared $614 million, according to industry newsletter TollRoadsNews. The state increased tolls 53 percent at the beginning of the year.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike raised $781 million in 2012 and, after $387 million in operating expenses, made $387 million in profits. Its tolls have increased 70 percent since 2009 for cash payers and 35 percent over the same period for EZPass users.
The New Jersey State Parkway finished sixth in overall toll collections, with $402 million. Its profits were $248 million.
Passenger ridership on both the New Jersey Turnpike and Parkway actually decreased in 2012 by 4.5 percent and 3.1 percent, respectively, according to the state's annual audit. Commercial traffic also saw declines.
Pennsylvania Turnpike traffic ridership has remained steady at about 189 million annually despite toll increases each year since 2009.
Spokesmen for both toll roads said all profits from toll revenue after operating expenses go right back into capital improvement spending and debt payments. For instance, in the case of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the $394 million doesn't even pay for the $450 million in annual payments to the state Department of Transportation mandated by Act 44. Turnpike spokesman Bill Capone said the turnpike agency also spends another $500-600 million annually in capital improvements.
"We’ve transferred about $3.9 billion to PennDOT [under Act 44]. We're obligated to pay $450 million every year. Our debt levels are increasing. It’s a major concern," Capone said, adding that the turnpike's debt has risen from about $2 billion before Act 44 to about $8 billion currently. "How long can you increase the cost of traveling the road before you really affect the traffic volume?"
A spokesman for the N.J. Turnpike said the analysis ignored the toll road's $7 billion improvement program underway, which includes $3 billion to expand the highway between Exits 6 and 9, according to one report.
"That expense, nearly $600 million last year [in debt payments on the improvements], is not even mentioned in the Toll Roads News analysis," Turnpike spokesman Tom Feeney told NJ.com. "That's like writing a story about a family budget and leaving out the car and mortgage payments."