State should charge on I-80, not

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When talks between Pennsylvania Turnpike management and unions representing toll collectors and maintenance workers broke down last week, there was the severe threat of a strike. This was in spite of a raise on the $15.76-an-hour starting wage and a healthcare plan offered to the representatives. In the event of such a strike, only 700 managers would be filling the jobs of thousands and collecting flat tolls instead of the usual per-mile tolls. But why use a complex ticket system and why toll the ?Pike at all when there is a better option sitting nicely between Sharon and Stroudsburg?
I come from the suburbs of Philadelphia, and so a trip home usually means this: five hours on the Turnpike and $16 in tolls. For those readers unfamiliar with the road, it was built in the late 1930s and opened to traffic in October 1940. Until recently, when the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC) began a complete rebuild of the road, the highway felt like one opened in 1940: filled seams in the roadway, potholes, inadequate sight distance, sub-par rest areas, frequent lane closures, and naturally, a fee for the privilege of using it.
Further north in the state lies Interstate 80. Planned by the Turnpike Commission in the late 1940s but built by the Pennsylvania Department of Highways after the Interstate Highway Act, the road is free, except for a toll bridge over the Delaware River. It too is weak on road conditions, historically being considered one of the worst Interstate Act highways in the country, but it?s far better than the Turnpike as regards maintenance (by PennDOT, rather than the Turnpike) and safety features such as wide medians and sight distance.
Changing I-80 to a toll road has been suggested before. Governors Milton Shapp and Tom Ridge both supported tolling the highway, the latter having changed from opposition shortly before leaving for his current post in Homeland Security. The current state Secretary of Transportation, Allen Biehler, has also commissioned a study on tolling the road, with fixed-toll barriers every 30 miles.
There are several reasons to move tolls from the Turnpike to I-80. The first is that the Pennsylvania Turnpike passes through the most heavily populated areas of the state, running by Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh, and is used primarily by Pennsylvanians. Conversely, I-80, the so-called Keystone Shortway between New York City and Cleveland, passes through the empty northern tier of Pennsylvania and is used primarily by out-of-state tourists, truckers, and traffic to the several colleges that line the corridor.
The biggest political opposition to it comes from the trucking industry, which would be deprived of a rare free route from the Northeast to Ohio. Another problem lies in that the road was built by money from the Federal Highway Administration, and thus the FHA?s permission must be secured in order to instate a toll.
The main technical problems with the toll are that it would induce a traffic shift from I-80 to the Turnpike and that the design of Interstate 80 limits tolling options. I-80 has the design features of a free road, such as ?diamond? interchanges where all ramps do not pass through a common point en route to the intersecting road. This makes toll collection somewhat more difficult and practically eliminates the possibility of the ticket/toll system used on the Turnpike mainline. Fixed-toll barrier systems, like the one proposed by Biehler, mean free rides for some, but the system is used on most toll roads in the country, with the northeastern toll-road complex and the Florida Turnpike being the exceptions.
The Turnpike continues to use the ticket system for its mainline and Northeast Extension, but the Commission is not against barrier-and-ramp tolls; in fact, all recent toll developments have been such. These include the western Pennsylvania expansions such as the Mon-Fayette Expressway, the western end of the mainline (now ticket-free with a single toll barrier), and the northern end of the Northeast Extension in Scranton. Additionally, the eastern end of the mainline is scheduled to convert to a fixed-toll barrier later in this decade when the interchange with I-95 is completed.
The reason fixed-toll systems are becoming more popular with the execs in Harrisburg is simple: Fixed tolls can be collected automatically using E-ZPass and exact-change machines. They eliminate the need for the problematic personnel, which has never been more important a change than during last week?s negotiations.
Changing toll systems for personnel reasons will necessitate a complete reworking of the toll system anyway. To move the burden to non-residents from Pennsylvanians, to corporations from individuals, charge on I-80 instead of the Turnpike.