America has long been the world’s poster child for distributed highway systems. It makes sense: The U.S. is a sprawling country, and traveling by car on “the open road” is a uniquely American value. Except in Pennsylvania.
Even if you don’t live in the Keystone State, you’ve probably experienced toll roads before. You’ve probably also come across some overlooked stretches of pavement on public roads. But the PA Turnpike has to be one of the only examples of a neglected, crowded toll road millions of drivers use daily. It doesn’t make any sense.
The turnpike began construction in 1940 and opened to drivers in 1956. The goal of the road is to help Pennsylvania residents travel safely across the Appalachian Mountains. One could argue that, given the road’s treacherous path and the need for frequent maintenance, it makes sense for this to be a toll road. However, the volume of traffic the road sees is more akin to what a public highway would experience, and its status as a pay-to-play highway is the result of a shrewd business move by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, one of the state’s most hated businesses on Yelp for obvious reasons.
Now, it’s not unheard of for toll road commissions to raise rates. Every so often, the combined factors of inflation, labor costs and the like necessitate increasing the tolls. But the Turnpike Commission seems to have become quite greedy. The rates to use the road have increased every year since 2009. That’s a decade of annual increases!
That’s not a good strategy. It doesn’t even align with the idea of evaluating the current operative costs and re-adjusting. The reason for this is a classic government kerfuffle. Act 44, signed in 2007, requires the Turnpike Commission to send $450 million per year to the state Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Lawmakers passed it intending to add toll collection to I-80. However, when the state legislature batted down that proposal, it left the commission with nowhere to source the funds for the existing turnpike, which is now in a game of catch-up that will see rate hikes until 2044 if current behavior continues.
Put All That Money to Good Use
The natural reaction to continually increasing tolls is to wonder where all the money is going. Asking this question makes comprehending the DOT’s life-draining policy all the more critical. However, even when you understand it, it does little to comfort PA commuters who rely on the road to go to work every day. Paying more each year to make the same commute for 10-plus years is like receiving a pay cut every year. In this way, the turnpike may well be affecting wages in the state.
Automating the ‘pike has been a long-stated goal of the commission and one of the few bright spots Pennsylvania drivers have to look forward to. The recent conversation has centered on reducing the number of Turnpike Commission staff from 1,800 to 1,300, which should create some wiggle room to allow the commission to make its payments to the DOT, but there’s no promise of the rate hikes stopping. That’s unnerving to many.
The tax- and toll-paying people of Pennsylvania understandably expect some improvement out of the road for their continued payment, but none will come. The turnpike remains in need of repair in many areas. Rest areas could benefit from updated facilities, and law enforcement is notoriously detrimental to traffic flow, without doing any genuine good to make the road safer. The Pennsylvania Turnpike is hardly serviceable as a road, let alone a private one.
One answer is to move out of Pennsylvania. The way Act 44 has placed a straitjacket around the working public is unacceptable, and wages in the state aren’t keeping pace. If you’re going to pay extra to live somewhere, it might as well have plenty of sunshine. Look out, Southern California — we’re coming where the weather’s good and the roads are free. Or at least well-paved.