All electronic tolling planned for Pennsylvania Turnpike

HARRISBURG — Get ready, Pennsylvania Turnpike drivers. If you haven’t shelled out $38 for an E-ZPass transponder yet, you soon will.

The Turnpike Commission has a plan to do away with the 76 toll plazas and toll collectors along the 545-mile Pennsylvania Turnpike, opting instead to turn the turnpike into an all-electronic tolling system.

“We fully expect we will be converted to an all-electronic system (AET) by 2018,” Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFabo said.

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AET systems generally work by replacing toll plazas with electronic readers. If a car with an E-ZPass transponder goes through, the toll is deducted from the user’s pre-paid account. If the driver doesn’t have an E-ZPass, their license plate information is captured by a camera and a bill is mailed to the vehicle’s registered owner.

The commission plans a marketing campaign between now and the time the an all-electronic tolling system is in place. It’s designed to bump up E-ZPass use to about 85 percent of all turnpike travelers. Right now, about 70 percent of travelers use E-Z Pass.

“When we covert to all-electronic tolling, those (non-E-ZPass) vehicles are going to be post-billed, so the commission, in order to not risk revenue loss, is going to want to increase E-ZPass usage so more people are paying,” DeFabo said.

Electronic tolling is far cheaper for the turnpike to operate. E-ZPass costs 20 cents per transaction, versus a dollar for a cash transaction. Since E-ZPass was implemented in 2000, the agency has 270 fewer toll workers.

And there’s the speed and safety of the system. Without toll booths, traffic keeps moving. An E-Z Pass lane processes between 1,000 and 1,200 vehicles, while a cash toll plaza can service about 200 to 250 vehicles an hour.

DeFabo said the agency is developing plans to ensure non-E-ZPass users pay up. That could include suspending vehicle registration as punishment for outstanding tolls, he said, though that requires the General Assembly to pass a new law.

The turnpike already is used to having to chase down toll scofflaws. Each month, between 30,000 and 40,000 drivers who don’t have an E-ZPass zip through the lanes. Cameras at toll plazas capture the license plates, and notices are sent to the registered owner asking for the toll and a minimum of a $25 fine. If no payment is made, the toll bill is turned over to collection agencies.

Most drivers settle up eventually, though some never do. In the past fiscal year, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission lost $1.6 million worth of tolls and violation fees from travelers who drove through an E-ZPass lane that never paid. Collectively, that’s less than half a percent of the more than $811 million in net revenue collected in tolls that year.

With all-electronic tolling, E-ZPass users would still have lower tolls, the same way E-ZPass is cheaper than paying cash now. But there is the up-front cost. Transponders cost at least $10, with a $35 initial payment used as a declining balance for toll fare plus a $3 annual fee.

Jenny Robinson, spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the organization favors cashless tolling because it improves traffic flow. This means safer roads, faster trips and better use of fuel. AAA already is a supporter of E-Z Pass, selling transponders at its stores and reminding users of the toll benefits.

The key, though, is ensuring the system is fair to out-of-state drivers who don’t have the chance to get an E-ZPass, or who might otherwise be fined.

“A nationwide methodology should be established to ensure that occasional users and out-of-town travelers have a mechanism in place for paying the appropriate toll,” Robinson said, “so that they are able to use toll facilities without being subject to a fine.”

Joshua Schank, president of the nonpartisan industry research firm Eno Transportation said all-electronic tolling is a well-tested, beneficial technology, one that generally helps grow revenue. Drivers, too, see benefits, with tolls tailored to the demand of the highway at certain times, as is done on the Washington, D.C., beltway.

“Electronic tolling offers the capability for improving service dramatically if you can toll based on time of day, or congestion,” he said. “That has real impacts on peoples’ lives on a daily basis.”

The move toward all-electronic tolling may become even more common in the years to come as governments try to find new ways to fund infrastructure, Schank said.

“States are underfunding, the federal government is underfunding, and we have major investment needs, so people are looking for any way they can to get that revenue,” he said.

Contact Melissa Daniels at melissa@paindependent.com