Anger at turnpike tolls could increase transportation funding woes

Anger at turnpike tolls could increase transportation funding woes

Author: Stephany Dugan/Thursday, January 10, 2019/Categories: News and Views

From Valley Forge to Breezewood to New Stanton, truckers, commuters and joy-riders are paying six percent more out of their pocket to drive on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

The increase, effective January 6, isn’t just bothering motorists, it’s also caught the ire of the state’s chief executive, Gov. Tom Wolf.

“People using the turnpike are paying too much,” Wolf said in a late 2018 interview with KDKA Radio. “The turnpike is driving business away.”

The toll increase, a product of a decade old state law, is also driving a wedge between trucking groups that feel hosed by excessive rates and mass transit advocates who see them as essential to a millennial economy.

Kevin Stewart, Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association president and CEO, is concerned about the impact rising rates will have on other roadways besides the turnpike.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission estimates that during the 2018 fiscal year, commercial vehicles contributed nearly 44 percent of total tolling revenues. Those same commercial vehicles made up less than 15 percent of total traffic volume on the turnpike.

Stewart fears the tolls will take a toll on roads that have not been designed to accommodate increased volumes of truck traffic.

“This will impact maintenance costs on the roadways as well as the possibility of creating additional safety concerns due to increased volume,” Stewart said in an email.

According to the Turnpike Commission, the toll increase — like others since 2009 — is required to meet the turnpike’s legislatively mandated funding obligation to support the commonwealth’s public transportation systems as well as to maintain and improve the 552-mile turnpike.

But that arrangement is now subject to legal action. In March of 2018, the Owner Operator of Independent Drivers Association filed a federal lawsuit on the grounds that using turnpike revenue from tolls is a violation of the interstate commerce law.

The funding mandate dates back to Act 44 of 2007, pre-dating Wolf and scores of legislators now serving in the General Assembly.

Act 44 expanded the Turnpike Commission’s financial obligations to the tune of a $450 million yearly payment to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for mass transit funding, along with construction and operating costs for other roads.

Fast forward six years and enter Act 89 of 2013, which altered the commission’s funding obligations. After 2021, that $450 million gets reduced to $50 million up until the end of the 2057 fiscal year. 

The slated decrease is already causing concern for those hoping to keep sustainable mass transit funding on track.

Chris Sandvig is the policy director of the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, a coalition of over 40 groups from business to social service that advocate for stable transit funding.

“The secret is out: Millennials and major employers look to move to places that have transit. If Pennsylvania is to be opening and welcoming, attract new talent and businesses, and provide opportunity for all, it must continue to fund mass transit,” said Sandvig in an email.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, Pennsylvania’s turnpike tolls are average nationally and among all neighboring states.

A spokesperson for House Appropriations Chairman Stan Saylor (R-York) recently said of the lawsuit, “If it were to come down favorably, I guess there would have to be some revisitation of what happens there.”

The Turnpike Commission declined to comment on the lawsuit while the litigation is ongoing.

Stephany Dugan is a staff writer for The PLS Reporter. Have a question, comment or tip? Email her at