CARLISLE — Changes are coming to the turnpike.
The toll road, traveled by more than 190 million vehicles annually, will see widened lanes, rebuilt bridges and the advent of all-electronic tolling in the next few years.
But, it will also see additional debt, continued payments to PennDOT to fund transportation statewide and an ongoing effort to balance toll increases with the public’s willingness to pay them.
Officials from the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission addressed these topics in a discussion with The Sentinel’s editorial board last week.
As the turnpike approaches its 75th anniversary in 2015, the commission is continuing a $500 million endeavor to reconstruct the oldest section of the toll road — a section running through Cumberland County. The work is part of a 10-year, $6.5 billion capital program.
The ongoing project includes replacing eight bridges and eliminating a bridge over Meeting House Road on the border of North Middleton Township and the Borough of Carlisle.
“We’ve been very proactive, working with locals, and making sure that if a bridge is taken out, access is provided,” said Bradley Heigel, chief engineer at the turnpike commission.
That access could include funding assistance to help assure the adjoining road traffic can handle the changing traffic pattern.
One project in Cumberland County will be put out to bid this year. A roadway and bridge reconstruction project between mileposts 220 and 227, essentially from the Carlisle interchange to the west, is expected to be advertised by May 21 and will have an estimated bid date of July 2. The project is expected to cost about $120 million.
“There will be some limited work this fall with the work really starting in earnest in the spring of next year,” Heigel said. “It will be about a two-year construction season.”
The majority of the work should be completed by the end of 2017, at which time the traffic would return to normal on both the mainline and on the affected side roads, Heigel said.
Traffic will be maintained on all the roads underneath the turnpike as the reconstruction project progresses, though the roads may be narrowed. Those roads include Harrisburg Pike, Cave Hill Drive, Waggoners Gap Road, Wolfs Bridge Road, Carlisle Springs Road and McClures Gap Road.
One bridge on Meadowbrook Road will have to be closed for a year during the project.
Since 2010, the commission spent $125,464,778.82 on projects in Cumberland County. Those projects include a total reconstruction projects, bridge reconstruction, bridge rehabilitation, overlays and inlet repairs.
Last year at this time, the turnpike commission wasn’t even certain what would be on its capital plan because of its obligation to turn money over to PennDOT to fund transportation projects elsewhere in the commonwealth.
Act 44 required the turnpike commission to give PennDOT $450 million per year starting in 2007, said Mark Compton, chief executive officer of the turnpike commission. Of that sum, $250 million is dedicated to public transit and $200 million goes to highways. Since the act went into effect, the commission has paid $4.3 billion to PennDOT.
A provision of Act 89, the transportation funding act passed late last year, sunsets the provisions of Act 44 in 2022. Those provisions had been scheduled to continue to 2057. After 2022, the commission will still have to make an annual $50 million cash payment to PennDOT.
“The only thing that we can really control, if we want to follow the law, is our capital plan,” Compton said. “If Act 44 had not been sunset, our capital plan would not have been able to be near as robust as it is today.”
Carl DeFebo, the commission’s director of public relations and marketing, said the payments required by Act 44 were the original reason the commission started to enact annual toll increases.
In 2010, a motorist traveling across Pennsylvania from west to east would have paid $29.35 regardless of whether they used E-ZPass or paid in cash. The following year, the first in which a differentiation between the two methods of payment were enacted, motorists paid $30.17 if paying by E-ZPass or $32.30 if by cash.
The gap between those two price points has continued to widen. In the latest rate increase, effective Jan. 1, the E-ZPass customer is paying $31.38 for the west to east trip and the cash customer is paying an even $44.
Nikolaus Grieshaber, chief financial officer for the commission, said 3 to 5.5 percent toll increases are projected over the next few years. The commission will work to minimize those increases even as it is expected to continue to issue debt through 2022.
Prior to Act 44, toll increases were tied to the consumer price index. Now, with the obligations to PennDOT in mind, the commission examines its toll structure on an annual basis, looking at the number of travelers using the turnpike and the revenue to determine what increase will be enacted, if any. Rate increases are typically announced in July and are effective in January.
Still, officials say the cash rate per mile is comparable to other toll roads across the country, which have also been raising their rates. New Jersey, for example, raised its tolls by 50 percent in both 2008 and 2012, Grieshaber said.
“What you’ll see throughout the northeast and even across the country is that there has been a trend for agencies to increase tolls more frequently as their capital needs go up,” DeFebo said.
Knowing motorists have a choice to take an alternate route rather than pay increasingly higher tolls, commission officials monitor the use of the turnpike to assure the tolls have not stretched beyond traveling public’s willingness to pay. Compton said the commission takes monthly traffic counts, and watches those counts to see if they start to trend downward.
The turnpike is starting to see a rise in use as the economy recovers. Grieshaber said the commission is starting to see better numbers of commercial traffic, and anticipates seeing the seasonal boost brought on by the summer travel months.
“The commonwealth as a whole, from 2007 up until about last year, traffic wasn’t declining, it wasn’t increasing. It was really maintaining or staying steady,” Compton said. “Last year was the first year that we started to see an uptick.”
The commission knows it has to attract customers to survive, Compton said, so it treats core elements like construction differently than PennDOT. Every backlog is tracked, and contractors will be called to get a backlog through if it gets to be too long. The commission also can mandate off-peak work, and require contractors to keep more lanes open.
DeFebo said the turnpike also offers amenities not available on other highways, including the service plazas, emergency call boxes, State Farm Safety Patrols, a customer assistance center and its own traffic operations center.
Transition to E-ZPass
As E-ZPass use increases, the commission inches closer to its plan to implement electronic-only tolling along the length of the turnpike.
E-ZPass use is at 74 percent statewide, but has reached 80 percent penetration in southeastern parts of the state, DeFebo said.
Officials say E-ZPass use will have to rise to between 80-85 percent before the transition would occur. That’s estimated to take about five to seven years.
“Our facility will wholesale change under that environment,” Compton said, adding that the turnpike will look a lot more like interstates 81 and 80 with tolling done at high speeds.
When all-electronic tolling is implemented, those without an E-ZPass will be videotaped as they pass through the interchange and receive a bill later. The commission is seeking approval from the legislature to require those tolls be paid before a driver can renew a vehicle’s registration or go through inspection, Compton said.
All-electronic tolling is expected to result in a $65 million reduction in operating costs, Compton said.
Electronic tolling could also result in increased revenue as it makes possible E-ZPass-only interchanges — formerly known as slip ramps. Carlisle Events is interested in such an interchange leading into its property, but it’s not likely under the current system because the tolling apparatus would have to be installed, Compton said.
E-ZPass interchanges have been also requested in Montgomery County, where the commission anticipates capturing a larger portion of the commuter market should they be installed, Compton said.
There are already a handful of these interchanges in the southeast, and another is being developed in the Poconos, DeFebo said.
When the transition to electronic tolling is made, tolls will be collected based on zones, not on specific entry and exit points, as they are now.
“It’s going to make it easier for us to develop new entry and exit points because we’ll have toll zones not specific areas where we collect tolls,” DeFebo said.
Pensions for the about 800 toll collectors along the turnpike are an expense that is out of the commission’s control, and Compton cites it as a key reason for the push to electronic tolling.
No employee has been laid off or terminated as E-ZPass use has increased, Compton said. Rather, the positions have been cut due to attrition.
The commission has kicked off a transition plan in which they are trying to place toll workers in other positions at the turnpike, or at PennDOT where their customer service experience would qualify them for work in drivers’ license centers, Compton said. Outside agencies have also offered to actively recruit toll collectors.
“The good news is we have over five years. The bad news is we have over five years,” Compton said. “Every time they get their paycheck, I’m sure they’re thinking, ‘I know this job dries up.’”
Though the commission is looking forward to all-electronic tolling, it still has to fill the interchanges. Those considered for toll collector positions are briefed on electronic tolling and the timeline for implementation so they know it isn’t a job they can expect to have for 10 years, Compton said.
“Next year at this time, we project that we will be $10 billion in debt as an organization,” Compton said.
That reality guides the commission as it deals with all parts of its business. For example, the commission plans no more than a 4 percent annual increase in operating costs, though it strives for less than that, Compton said.
Grieshaber said the commission expects to add $1 billion of debt in each of the next 10 years.
“It’s important to understand it’s something we’ve done since the beginning of this agency, and we are good at managing this debt,” DeFebo said.
“I don’t know that you could eliminate the turnpike commission’s debt.”
Historically, autonomous agencies like the turnpike commission were created with the ability to take on debt, issuing bonds to be repaid by toll revenues. The commission’s debt has grown since the implementation of Act 44, but it is expert at managing that debt, DeFebo said. When considering the turnpike commission’s debt, it’s best to look at its bond rating. If that starts to suffer, the commission has to look at tolls, capital spending and engage the legislature in discussion over those payments to PennDOT.
With an eye to increasing efficiency, the commission and PennDOT work together to find areas of collaboration in a program called “Mapping the Future.” The program looks at areas such as training, maintenance and contracting to determine where they can best work together.