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Good news, bad news to start new year

Published January 08. 2019 12:19PM

Calling General Grant, Calling General Grant. As of Sunday, you need a $50 bill (featuring a portrait of President and Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant) from your wallet to pay for your trip from end to end on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, it now costs $50.40 for the trip from Neshaminy Falls, the easternmost interchange in Pennsylvania, to Warrendale, the westernmost just before the Ohio border.

If you have E-ZPass, it’s a lot cheaper — $36.20.

If you enter at the northernmost interchange of the Northeast Extension near Clarks Summit and travel to the Ohio border, the cost is $58.10.

This has been the 11th consecutive year that motorists are being greeted with a rate hike in the new year. Just another way the state wishes us “Happy New Year.”

For those who take the turnpike between the Mahoning Valley and Lehigh Valley interchanges, the one-way cash rate of $3.35 has increased by about 20 cents, while the E-ZPass rate rose about 13 cents from $2.16.

Larger vehicles pay substantially more tolls. A class 9 vehicle weighing more than 100,000 pounds, for example, would pay more than $2,000 to make the cross-state trip.

In announcing yet another increase, Mark Compton, chief executive officer of the Turnpike Commission, said that the Pennsylvania Turnpike is the oldest in the nation, going on 79 years of age. “We owe it to toll-paying customers to continue to invest in our road to make it safer, smoother and wider,” Compton said.

He added that about 84 percent of the $552 million capital budget is focused on renewing, rebuilding and widening the toll road, which carried more than 200 million vehicles in 2017. Once the figures are in for 2018, that number is expected to be even higher.

These annual toll increases are nothing new. We told you last July when the commission announced the 2019 increases that this was going to be an annual occurrence through 2044. (This is not a typographical error!)

Compton said the turnpike authority will try to keep the increases in check through efficiencies, but, he added, “We have no option except to increase tolls annually. Right now, traffic and revenue predictions estimate increases of up to 6 percent per year will be necessary until 2044.”

If these 6 percent annual bumps do take place as projected, the driver of a car making the trip between the Mahoning Valley and Lehigh Valley interchanges would make a cash payment of $12.24 each way in 2044.

Well, that’s the bad news; now for the good news: Pennsylvania motorists are not paying a higher gas tax this year. Despite this, Pennsylvania continues to have the highest gas tax in the nation when combining federal, state and local taxes.

We motorists pay about 77 cents a gallon in taxes, or about 48 percent more than the national average of 52 cents a gallon. The state tax accounts for 57.6 cents of the total.

How did we become the highest gas-tax state in the union? It came about in 2013 when the state General Assembly passed and then-Gov. Tom Corbett signed Act 89 lifting the wholesale gas tax, which had hit its cap a number of years earlier. So while the price of gasoline soared, the tax remained the same, leading to a badly underfunded deficit to fix roads and deteriorating bridges.

The legislation called for a three-step hike, the last installment of which took effect in 2017. In 2013, before the increase started, we paid 31.2 cents a gallon in state tax. When the third increase went into effect in 2017, we paid 58.2 cents in state tax, an 87 percent increase from 2013. The rate came down slightly in 2018 and remains there for 2019 at 57.6 cents a gallon.

You might have forgotten that this same Act 89 provided for increases in license and registration fees, too, which came into being in 2014.

Pennsylvania is one of the few states which rely on gas taxes and motor license fees to finance bridge and road repairs. The commonwealth has one of the largest systems of roads and highways in the nation, and, until recently, one of the worst.

The tax hike raised an expected $300 million in 2017, and since its inception in 2014 added nearly $2.5 billion for road and bridge projects.

That’s why just about everywhere you drove in 2018 you encountered bridges being replaced or repaired and roads under construction. “Your tax dollars at work.”

These taxes are known as “user fees.” In other words, if you want to avoid them, don’t drive — not a very practical alternative for most residents, especially for those who live in areas where mass transportation is spotty to nonexistent.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

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