Trucks seeking ways to dodge latest turnpike toll hikes

"There comes a point in time when it’s not worth using the turnpike. At 3 a.m., I can take I-81 to Hazleton, get on Route 309 and while it may take me an extra hour to get to Philadelphia, that’s worth $65 per night."
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Pa. State Route 309, which is an alternate, toll-free route to Philadelphia.

For those who use the Pennsylvania Turnpike, it’s costing drivers more in 2013.
Because of a toll hike that was approved in July, those paying cash are seeing an increase of 10 percent and those using EZ Pass are seeing a 3 percent hike.
The money raised through the toll hikes is being used to satisfy agreements in Act 44, passed in 2007. The bill requires the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission give $450 million ever year to pay for transportation infrastructure costs. The state estimates that it would be $24 billion over a 50 year period. Since opening in 1940, turnpike fees have been raised only five times.
“It’s a pretty significant cost for us and I’m not really sure what to make of it,” said Rob Parry, owner of L.A. Thomas Trucking, Tunkhannock.
Parry spends close to $1,000 per month on turnpike fees and has been in the trucking business for about 30 years and he thinks the turnpike commission is just going to “price themselves out of business.” His business uses many ‘owner-operators,’ meaning that drivers are hired to use their own trucks taking cargo to Philadelphia and the Pittsburgh area.
Parry said that at some point, he’ll have no choice than to recoup some of the costs from his customers.
“There comes a point in time when it’s not worth using the turnpike. At 3 a.m., I can take I-81 to Hazleton, get on Route 309 and while it may take me an extra hour to get to Philadelphia, that’s worth $65 per night,” he said. He said a trip to western Pennsylvania is much the same, even with going to Maryland and coming back to northeastern Pennsylvania through New Jersey.
“It’s really not that much further,” he said. “And suddenly, you’re diverting all of that money out of Pennsylvania.” He said money that could be spent on meals, personal items, fuel — and fuel taxes — will be spent elsewhere.
“There comes a point that when I wonder if they really are making the money that they had hoped to make,” said Parry. “I don’t think a lot of people have thought it through.”
Parry said inevitably the burden will fall on the small towns and communities around the state that don’t want added traffic. “You’re going to take certain places in the state where you’re going to have a lot increased traffic on the side roads,” he said. “You’re just going to add congestion in other places. Trucks are a business and as a business guys are just going to avoid the Pennsylvania Turnpike.”
“The turnpike is 70 years old and we have been engaged in the process of completely rebuilding the turnpike,” said Carl DeFebo, spokesman for The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. “These projects are necessary. This money does benefit all of Pennsylvania, even the counties that are far from the Pa. Turnpike because they are helping to underwrite transportation projects across the state.”
In addition, the commission also is saddled with debt and has had to borrow money to meet that debt, thus raising tolls to help offset costs.
“It’s really a hot button issue,” said Atty. Stephen Franco, who operates a trucking company himself and also serves as a member of a Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association.
While his company does not use the turnpike exclusively, he said many of his clients do. “It can stall plans for expansion, depending on how close the margins are,” said Franco.
Auditor General Jack Wagner said in early January that the turnpike commission had been involved in risky ‘interest rate swaps,’ costing the state millions. In a statement, Wagner said the turnpike commission’s long-term debt has risen more than 200 percent, from $2.6 billion to $8.3 billion since the General Assembly approved Act 44 in 2007.
An interest rate swap is a legal agreement between two parties who guess on which way interest rates move. The party who guesses correctly, wins, he said.
“Given its precarious financial position relative to Act 44 payments, the turnpike should not use these complicated and risky deals,” Wagner said in a statement.
His report called for a number of changes. Currently, turnpike employees ride the turnpike for free, even for personal travel and the Turnpike Commission gave more than $4 million of free tolls to more than 5,000 consultants, all while, turnpike traffic has remained stagnant, Wagner said.