Inquirer Editorial: Make the turnpike easier to travel

Posted: March 22, 2012

Philadelphia-area commuters should welcome a plan that could spare them the daily slog through choke points along the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

With its recently unveiled initiative for all-electronic tolling over the next five years, the Turnpike Commission offers motorists hope for relief over the long term.

Beyond speeding travel, the phasing out of cash tolls and plazas should improve safety and enable turnpike officials to moderate future toll increases.

In fact, the toll plan could cut costs for thousands of turnpike motorists right now. These are drivers who have resisted signing up for an E-ZPass payment account, meaning they're already paying about 17 percent more in cash tolls as a result of a differential put in place recently.

The switch to electronic tolling will give cash-only customers even greater incentive to switch to E-ZPass. That's because cash-paying customers - billed by mail after their vehicles' license plates are video-photographed - would be hit with even higher costs. To cover the administrative expense of billing these drivers, the Turnpike Commission estimates their tolls would have to be set 50 percent higher, or more, than tolls paid electronically.

That's a powerful incentive to switch to E-ZPass, which already speeds tolling at dedicated toll booths all along the turnpike.

Shifting to a type of gantry for tolling won't come cheap. The estimated cost is $320 million, but turnpike officials say the new system would realize operating savings on labor costs, as toll collector jobs are phased out.

Given the unemployment rate, the aim should be to reduce those jobs through attrition as much as possible.

Turnpike officials also need to take steps to assure that moving to electronic tolls doesn't cut into revenues needed to maintain the turnpike's several hundred miles of road. As other toll-road operators have found, some motorists billed by mail simply skip paying tolls.

The Turnpike Commission must get legislative authority to go after scofflaws and lock in pacts with neighboring states so that their residents are billed when they use the turnpike without E-ZPass.

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