Pa. Turnpike takes its toll: Travel cost rises 25%


Westgate of the Pa Turnpike or Welcome to high tolls

By Jeanne Starmack

It’s costing a lot more to keep on trucking.

Are you planning a ski trip out to Seven Springs, or a visit to Grandma in Philadelphia? It’s going to cost you more to take the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

At least you’re not a long-haul trucking company: They’re taking a much bigger hit to use the turnpike, where tolls increased 25 percent for cars and trucks beginning last Sunday.

Long-haul trucking companies in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys use the turnpike’s mainline to haul loads east toward Philadelphia.

The mainline begins at the Ohio border in New Springfield, drops south toward Pittsburgh and crosses the state to the Philadelphia area. It ends at the Delaware River bridge.

Beginning a trip by car at the Ohio line, a turnpike user would pay a flat rate of $3.75 in addition to tolls. For a tractor-trailer, it costs $18.75 in addition to whatever the driver has to pay for tolls. That flat rate used to be $3 for cars and $15 for trucks.

To haul steel to Philadelphia, it would cost PI & I Motor Express of Masury $168.75, around $42 more than it cost last year. The company frequently uses the road, getting on at the first Pennsylvania interchange in Warrendale. It uses flatbeds to haul steel for customers such as mills and car companies.

For a trucking company making daily trips, the tolls add up fast, said Mike Monos, the company’s vice president of compliance and operations.

“A 25 percent increase is a major, major hit,” said Monos, who also pointed out the state’s plan to increase tolls by 3 percent every year beginning in 2010. He said he believes the turnpike would actually see an increase in business if the state rolled back the rate increase.

With business slow because of the bad economy and the spectre of fuel-price increases, the rise in tolls is especially bad, he said.

Diesel fuel, he added, is at $3.50 a gallon — down some, but it hasn’t dropped like gasoline.

It wouldn’t be as bad, said Monos, if the increase would be used for the upkeep of the turnpike. But 90 percent of it is not.

“For the first time, tolls aren’t only going back into state toll roads, but helping to fund infrastructure improvements in every Pennsylvania county,” said turnpike CEO Joe Brimmeier in a prepared statement.

“In fact, more than 90 percent of the toll-increase proceeds will benefit nonturnpike road and bridge projects and transit operations,” he continued.

The state said the increase is required to meet financial obligations under Act 44, signed by Gov. Ed Rendell in July 2007. Under Act 44, the turnpike is providing $2.5 billion in supplemental transportation funding from August 2007 to May 2010.

The state had proposed making Interstate 80 a toll road to help meet Act 44 funding obligations, but the federal government stalled that plan last year.

Carl DeFebo, spokesman for the turnpike commission, said the I-80 proposal has nothing to do with the present mainline rate increase. He said the state planned all along to help satisfy Act 44 funding requirements with a 25 percent increase in 2009.

Bill Strimbu of Nick Strimbu Inc. trucking company in Brookfield said his company will not pass the increase on to customers. “It’s crazy the way the economy is now,” he said. “The customers can’t absorb it. So it’s up to us.”

Monos said his company is looking at alternative routes but said it keeps its trucks on main roads for safety reasons. A new route would also have to be cost-effective when taking fuel prices into consideration, he said.

He also said it’s tricky to pass costs on to customers when businesses are slowing down because of the economy.

“How will they absorb it,” he asked. “How will we?”

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