FILE - Pennsylvania Turnpike

The Pennsylvania Turnpike

To the surprise of no one and the disgust of everyone, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission recently announced that it will raise tolls by 6 percent, effective Jan. 5, 2020.

After raising tolls only five times during the first 64 years of the Pennsylvania Turnpike's existence, tolls will now be raised for a 12th consecutive year. As late as 2006, it cost $14.70 to travel the entire 356 miles of the highway. Next year such a trip is estimated to cost $61.78.

However, the good news is there's a plan being proposed by two Bucks County Democratic legislators that could help offset the cost of the tolls. But the bad news is that the Republicans, who control both the state House and Senate, have shown absolutely no interest in the legislation.

Sen. Steve Santarsiero, D-10, and Rep. Perry Warren, D-31, have introduced bills in their respective chambers that would offer an annual state income tax credit of 50 percent of tolls paid, with a $500 cap. Individuals, corporations and small businesses with tax liability would be eligible. In order to qualify, all tax credit filers would be required to submit valid E-ZPass documentation.

They recently held a press conference to outline their plans.

“Commuters, families and businesses across southeastern Pennsylvania, who regularly pay tolls to maintain our roads and bridges, deserve the tax relief outlined in SB 451,” Santarsiero said, according a story in the Bucks County Courier Times.

“This legislation will reduce the cost of commuting, reduce business costs, and will spur economic development,” Warren said. “Through a commuter tax credit, we are looking to benefit our community and build our economy.''

In addition to providing some much-needed help for turnpike drivers, the measure also would produce an additional 2.5 percent in revenue for the financially troubled turnpike.

As much as people might want to blame turnpike officials for the endless increases, they didn't create this problem.

The problem began in 2007, when the Legislature needed to raise transportation revenues. Instead of raising the gas tax, which always sets off political firestorms, lawmakers settled on the idea of raising $450 million annually by tolling Interstate 80 and placing higher tolls on the turnpike.

However, the tolling of I-80 was rejected by the federal government. The state Legislature could have devised another means to raise the necessary revenue but decided to do the easy thing and let turnpike motorists foot the entire $450 million payment through higher tolls.

To make the $450 million payment, the turnpike has been forced to borrow money year after year. Last year, the commission had to turn to Wall Street for relief, taking on $11.8 billion in debt, according to the Tribune-Review.

State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has been issuing warnings about the turnpike's troubled finances for years. Last spring, he told the Tribune-Review that the turnpike is “on the path to bankruptcy” absent legislative action. He said the high tolls are forcing drivers to take alternate routes thereby depriving the turnpike of much-needed revenues.

He added that even those who don’t use the turnpike are paying the price in terms of the dangers from additional traffic diverted to roads not built to carry it and higher costs for goods that must travel on the turnpike.

“Today, truckers pay $183.50 one-way for a trip across the state,” DePasqule said. “In less than 20 years, they will be paying over $400 one way.”

Higher tolls is simply not the solution to the turnpike's financial problems, he added.

Meanwhile, Republicans have done nothing to even try and find a solution to the problem. Santarsiero and Warren have introduced similar bills in past years and they've gone nowhere. GOP committee chairs have not allowed them to even come up for a vote. They also have not permitted any hearings or discussions about the bills.

Not that Republicans seem to have any particular problems with the bills. In fact, they've just ignored the measures. It seems as if their main opposition to the bills comes more from the fact that Santarseiero and Warren are Democrats more than anything else. If they were Republicans, there's a good chance the legislation would have become law by now.

Perhaps the only way to break the logjam would be if enough people contacted their lawmakers, especially Republicans, and demanded that action be taken. Unless Republicans can come up with a better plan, they should approve the turnpike toll rebate.

Mark O’Keefe is a retired journalist. He worked for 38 years at the Herald-Standard in Uniontown, Pa., serving for 21 years as a managing editor, nine years as executive editor and four years as editorial page editor. He won several awards for his coverage of the Pennsylvania Legislature. He can be reached by email at mokeefe1@yahoo.com