by Paul Kengor | July 08, 2021

In a column around this time last year, I wrote about the toll that covid was taking on tollbooth workers on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I had been prompted by an eerie ride to Latrobe from my home in Grove City. Like many Pennsylvanians under lockdown, I hadn’t been on a highway in months. Driving down an almost empty Route 79 to hop on the turnpike in Cranberry was surreal. I wondered if toll workers would be on the job. How would the commonwealth collect fees?

I got my answer at the booth, where signs directed drivers to cruise through. An automated system would photograph license plates and bill drivers in the mail.

It prompted me to wonder if this signaled the end of Pennsylvania’s tollbooth collectors. Pennsylvania had already started some toll-by-plate electronic billing but hadn’t fully transitioned. Covid changed that, prompting a complete transition. Covid sealed the fate of tollbooth workers. It killed their jobs.

I noted in my column that though this transition to electronic billing was long overdue, we shouldn’t celebrate people losing jobs. Then I posed this thought: Electronic billing has been done nationwide for the purpose of saving money. Thus, a fully electronic collection system for the turnpike should lead to a corresponding decrease in toll charges. At the least, in a just world, it ought to slow the incessant rate hikes, which are uniquely outrageous for the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The cost savings of replacing these employees is significant. I wrote: “The least the commonwealth could do is pass along savings to citizens who use its turnpike.”

I hastened to add: “Fat chance, right?”

Fat chance, indeed.

I regret to report that Pennsylvania Turnpike fees remain not only outrageous but continue to skyrocket with seemingly no end in sight.

It now costs $33.70, ladies and gentlemen, to drive the turnpike from Cranberry to Breezewood. That’s higher than gasoline costs, even at a time of high gas prices. To drive from Cranberry to the end of the turnpike at exit 352 (Street Road) costs $80. Yes, $80. These rates are obscene.

Just how outrageous is Pennsylvania’s toll situation? According to a new study by the insurance organization Budget Direct, the Pennsylvania Turnpike is not only the worst in America but quite literally in the world. Yes, in the world. You have to venture to Austria or Croatia to come anywhere close to Pennsylvania’s astronomical fees.

While hearing me complain about this, friends ask why I haven’t purchased an E-ZPass, which, judging from the cars flying through E-ZPass lanes, seems to have become the dominant option. I refuse. E-ZPass serves as almost a hidden tax. The driver who purchases E-ZPass is easily subjected to silent rate hikes (and the $3 annual fee for the device could get nudged upwards, too). Moreover, E-ZPass rates aren’t much better. The rate from Cranberry to exit 352 is $39.40. Sure, that’s half the non-E-ZPass rate, but given that E-ZPass is supposed to give a break to frequent fliers, it ought to be much lower.

If I was one of the 500-plus tollbooth workers who lost my job to electronic billing, I would want to know why the elimination of my job hasn’t result in a penny of savings to users — quite the contrary.

This is highway robbery.

Paul Kengor is a professor of political science and chief academic fellow of the Institute for Faith & Freedom at Grove City College.