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Fares will take toll on motorists

TIMING CAN BE the essence of success, and in that regard Pennsylvania’s plan to raise funds for infrastructure improvements is far from ideal.

Today the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission will increase tolls by about 25 percent on its 545-mile network as part of legislation enacted in 2007. It has the makings of a bumpy ride for citizens, the Turnpike Commission and probably the state.

Under Act 44, the Turnpike Commission will provide $2.5 billion to the state in a three-year span for transportation and infrastructure improvements. This is significant, because it is the first time in the turnpike’s 68-year history that substantial toll income is earmarked for projects other than turnpike operations.

It amounts to a hidden tax for travelers and truckers who must use the paid highway, and it comes during a deep recession when the added pinch can hurt many motorists.

If your turnpike fare was $2.25 on Saturday, your bill today will be $2.85. If it was $15.25 on Saturday, today you’ll pony up $19.10.

That hurts – a lot.

The only bright side to this – if there is such a thing during bad times – is that gas prices are low now. But that’s a temporary situation and the higher tolls will still be levied when OPEC and others are successful at again jacking up oil prices.

This can’t be a good thing for the Turnpike Commission or its workforce, either. Only six weeks ago the commission acknowledged that it had to lay off workers and offer voluntary buyouts to offset falling traffic and declining toll revenues.

Higher tolls will provide an incentive for motorists to seek other routes, especially when fuel costs are low, which in turn will drive toll collections down.

What will the state and commission do then? Will they boost rates higher on those truckers and travelers who absolutely must use the network?

The agency, ever adept at public relations, even managed to put a positive spin on the toll boost. The commission noted it’s only the sixth rate change in its 68-year history and that in January 2010 “tolls will go up incrementally by about 3 percent each year.”

Is that what we have to look forward to if all goes well?

It’s a risky proposition when excessive rates from one government operation are supposed to pay for another public entity’s bills. And it’s even more perilous when the General Assembly failed to address the state’s crumbling network of roads in a progressive way in the hot months of 2007.

Now, on a cold morning in early 2009, turnpike users will begin paying the price for years to come.

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