Last updated: February 19. 2013 5:17PM - 150 Views

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HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission officials said Tuesday they plan to convert the Pennsylvania Turnpike into all-electronic tolls that charge motorists without requiring them to drive through toll plazas.

The turnpike's acting chief executive officer Craig Shuey told a joint House and Senate Transportation Committee hearing that the five-year project is the most ambitious of its kind in the nation.

He also says it'll be the most significant change in how the turnpike operates since it opened in 1940.

The existing network of toll plazas would be replaced with overhead gantries that straddle travel lanes. Tolls would automatically be deducted from E-ZPass accounts and the license plates of other vehicles would be photographed so bills could be sent to their owners. Cash payments would no longer be an option.

Consultants made the recommendation in a report earlier this year, and put the cost at an estimated $319 million.

The announcement came as state Auditor General Jack Wagner sounded an alarm over the rising debt piling onto the Commission, warning lawmakers that state taxpayers will be called on to bail out debts that benefit Wall Street.

Wagner, a Democrat, rebutted earlier testimony by turnpike commission officials and a financial consultant that the agency can sustain its financial path by raising tolls every year and that it can continue to find lenders.

He told a joint House and Senate Transportation Committee that the proportion of the commission's debt payments to overall revenue has risen to 47 percent, and likened the turnpike commission's operations to remortgaging a home to pay off credit card debts. The commission's debt has risen from $2.5 billion in 2007 to $7.8 billion, even as the fourth-straight annual toll increase took effect Jan. 1.

What all of you keep hearing — it's what irritates me the most — is that this is OK, Wagner said. This is not OK. This has to change. And it's really within your hands and the governor's hands to change.

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