Despite a reduction in its annual payments to the state Department of Transportation, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission faces significant financial challenges to repay its debts and fund capital projects, state Auditor General Timothy DeFoor said in an audit report.
In the audit released Tuesday, DeFoor said the annual toll increases required to meet the commission’s obligations place an undue burden on turnpike users. It included recommendations for the commission to reduce operating costs, and for the General Assembly to address debt and shift the financial burden away from travelers.
The audit also found that uncollected tolls have continued to increase, and recommended the commission seek new ways to collect fares from turnpike users.
And the audit found that anti-discrimination language in the commissions contract for service place operators is outdated and inadequate. It recommends reevaluating the contract language and providing information to travelers on how to report discrimination.
Since 2007, the turnpike commission has provided PennDOT with funding assistance for mass transit systems, bridges, and highways across the state to the tune of $15.9 billion.
The $450 million annual payments mandated by Act 44 of 2007 required annual toll increases that will continue through the foreseeable future, according to the commission.
Although the Act 44 payments ended in 2021, Act 89 of 2013 requires the commission to continue making $50 million payments to PennDOT from its cash receipts.
The debt service on bonds issued to meet the commission’s Act 44 obligations will continue to increase to a maximum of $600 million in 2030 before starting to decrease.
Based on current traffic and revenue projections, the commission’s plan calls for toll increases of 5% through 2025, 4% in 2026, 3.5% in 2027, then 3% annually from 2028 to 2050.
DeFoor makes five recommendations for the commission:
The audit also recommends that the General Assembly reevaluate acts 44 and 89 to mitigate the commission’s debt burden and refrain from increasing its obligations to PennDOT or eliminate them altogether.
The audit found the turnpike’s Toll-By-Plate system that replaced toll takers and allows motorists to use the turnpike without EZPass is accountable for nearly $105 million in unpaid tolls.
The reasons for the unpaid tolls include users simply not paying invoices, unidentifiable license plates, a lack of address records from state motor vehicle agencies, and undeliverable invoices.
The report recommends:
It also recommends the commission work with the General Assembly to increase penalties for motorists who knowingly have unreadable license plates, allow the commission to use sources other than PennDOT to obtain motorists’ addresses, lower the threshold for registration suspension for unpaid tolls, require unpaid tolls to be paid before transferring a vehicle title, and to deduct tolls from state lottery winnings or tax refunds.
Peter Hall is a senior reporter at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.