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Finally Automating The Pennsylvania Turnpike Could Ease Money Woes, But What About Toll Collectors?

Matt Slocum

The transition to an all-electronic tolling system has been nearly a decade in the making; the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission first commissioned a feasibility study in 2010.

While finally pulling it off could stem the turnpike’s financial bleeding, it raises the specter of mass layoffs for the state’s more than 500 working toll collectors.

The conundrum illuminates the turnpike’s wrestling match with that most frustrating of truisms: you can’t please everyone. Or, maybe, anyone.

Every year since 2007, the turnpike has sent $450 million to PennDOT to fund transportation across the state, including contributions to mass transit systems such as Port Authority of Allegheny County and Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority. The arrangement created by state legislators, described recently by Turnpike Commission CEO Mark Compton as an “unsustainable obligation,” helped create the turnpike’s staggering $11 billion of debt, as well as the 11-year streak of toll hikes required to maintain fiscal solvency.

Nobody — motorists nor truckers, the turnpike nor PennDOT, transit authorities nor unions, and definitely not the state auditor-general — is happy.

One bright spot in the consuming darkness of this financial night is the long-promised automation.

“The number of employees we have right now is roughly 1,800. Once we go to [all electronic tolling] that number goes to 1,300,” said Compton.

That, he said, would reduce the turnpike's approximately $400 million operating budget by about $70 million.

The turnpike must keep the growth of its operating budget below inflation, so that’s a lot of found revenue, said Compton, adding that transition to electronic tolling is “going well.” Motorists continue to adopt E-Z Pass, and for those who don’t, the turnpike will use something called toll by plate. A camera takes a picture of a license plate, and sends the bill by mail.

That system already exists at the Delaware River Bridge and the Beaver Valley Expressway exits, said Compton.

But it’s not clear the turnpike will actually recoup that $70 million, said Charles Gaston, who represents toll collectors west of Gettysburg as secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 250.

“The question that the collectors had originally was ‘Isn’t money in hand better than trying to chase people around to get the money off them?’” he said. “Send them a letter in the mail with a bill and try and recoup the monies for tolls?”

And while Pennsylvania can suspend a Pennsylvanian’s vehicle registration for nonpayment of tolls at the $500 dollar mark, Gaston said out-of-state motorists wouldn’t face similar consequences.

Current legislation allows Pennsylvania to create reciprocal agreements with other states to enforce toll payment, but they do not yet appear to be written. A turnpike representative was not immediately available for comment. However, a May 2018 release from the turnpike said revenues collected through cashless tolling pilots in 2016 and 2017 exceeded projections.

It’s disheartening that the turnpike’s expected savings stem from a shrinking workforce, said Compton.

“But we’re doing what we can to work with [tollworkers] to make sure they all land on their feet. Either with us or with another state agency or a private company.”

In 2015 the turnpike approved up to $5,250 of annual tuition reimbursement for approved courses at an accredited institution. And Gaston said early communication between the turnpike and collectors was good but it's fallen off recently.

“The employees haven’t heard anything for such a long time, I think they think [automation has been] put on the shelf.”

Under a 2016 contract, cuts to toll collector positions were only allowed through attrition; people retiring would not be replaced. Negotiations for a new contract are underway; the old one expires in September, and another proposal with no layoffs is on the table, said Gaston.

But “you can’t close the roadway down and go all automatic and not affect 500 toll collectors,” he said. He acknowledges other states have made the move to all-electronic systems, but said collectors do more than just make sure people pay their way: they help keep people away from accidents and backups, they provide a friendly face -- or at least a face -- during a long drive.

“And you just have the public that are lost constantly,” he said, even if they do have map apps. “They get on the road, they have no idea which way to go. They’re always asking questions.”

The turnpike expects to become fully electronic by 2022, said Compton.