By John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Bureau
The cash-strapped Pennsylvania Turnpike is five years away from eliminating more than 600 toll collector jobs as the 550-mile long system switches to all-electronic tolls at the 70 plazas spread across the commonwealth.
Turnpike officials say that 72 percent of the 186.5 million vehicles that use the turnpike already employ the EZ Pass system to automatically pay tolls.
As E-ZPass has become more popular, the turnpike has slowly reduced the number of toll collectors, shedding 270 of those jobs, said turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo.
Toll collectors’ starting pay is $19 an hour, but many make more than $22 an hour, government records show.
With overtime, 10 toll collectors made in excess of $75,000 last year. The highest-paid toll collector took home $94,487 in 2012, government payroll records show.
The turnpike is paying consultant, HNTB, $6 million to help to come up with the plan to replace the toll collectors with a system that combines the EZ-Pass technology with cameras that can read license plates to bill motorists.
Turnpike officials say it costs at least 5-times as much to collect tolls from motorists paying cash as it does to accept payment electronically, said Alan Williamson, program manager for the turnpike commission’s transition to all-electronic tolling.
As a result, the system has already begun to punish motorists who want to pay cash instead of subscribing to E-ZPass.
Last week, the turnpike commission voted to increase tolls 2 percent for EZ-Pass users and 12 percent for non-E-ZPass drivers. For instance, on the trip from Breezewood to New Stanton, the toll for an E-ZPass driver will increase from $7.10 to $7.25. The toll for non-E-ZPass drivers will increase from $9.10 to $10.20. That means, next year the toll for motorists who pay cash will be $2.95 more for the exact same trip.
The turnpike uses the license-plate reading cameras to nab drivers who fly through the E-Z Pass lane even though they don’t have a subscription.
“Now it’s a violation,” DeFebo said. Once the system is in place, “They will just receive a bill.”
That bill will be based on a toll price that is higher than if the motorist used EZ-Pass. To get an E-ZPass subscription, motorists must pay $38 up-front, but $35 of that cost is available for tolls. The remaining $3 is a service fee.
In testimony before a Senate panel this week, Turnpike CEO Mark Compton described the shift to all-electronic tolling as “the most significant operational change in (the turnpike’s) 75 year history.”
The scale of the project is unprecedented. While all-electronic tolling is becoming increasingly common across the country, the Pennsylvania Turnpike would be the largest cashless tolling system in the nation.
There is little reason to believe that the technology is insufficient to handle the task, said state Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer County. But, there are some questions about how easy it will be to collect money from out-of-state travelers, he said.
“I know the collection rate won’t be 100 percent,” he said.
DeFebo said that “reciprocity” has become a buzzword in the industry as states scramble to make sure that they are cooperating sufficiently to share information about travelers who owe tolls. Fifteen states use E-ZPass, so it’s much easier to share information with them, he said.
The 2014 toll increase is the sixth since the state passed Act 44, a law that mandated that the turnpike begin paying $450 million a year to PennDOT. The turnpike was supposed to be able recoup its money by tolling Interstate 80. The federal government refused to allow I-80 tolling, and the Legislature has yet to pass a law to get the turnpike out from under its Act 44 obligations.
Finnerty reports from Harrisburg for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.’s Pennsylvania newspapers, including The Meadville Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.