BEAR CREEK TWP. -- The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission believes 69 percent of its users can't be wrong.
That's the share of vehicles that travel the turnpike using the E-Z Pass automated system to pay tolls. The rest still take a ticket and pay cash at their exit.
But that could change over the next five years as the commission weighs the merits of moving to an all-automated system.
Turnpike Commission Acting CEO Craig Shuey told state lawmakers last week the agency is replacing toll booths along the 553-mile turnpike with overhead gantries. Tolls would automatically be deducted from E-Z Pass accounts. License plates of other vehicles would be photographed so bills could be sent to their owners.
We're taking it one step at a time, said Carl DeFebo, director of communications and marketing for the Turnpike. We know for certain that we will get there.
In July, the commission selected a program manager to lead the potential implementation of a cashless, All-Electronic Tolling system. The commission voted unanimously to engage HNTB Corp. after a competitive process. HNTB has offices in Philadelphia, Norristown, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh; the AET project will be managed from HNTB's Harrisburg office.
DeFebo said an AET collection system offers numerous advantages to motorists and the agency, including enhanced safety, a cleaner environment, improved customer convenience and operational efficiencies.
He said an AET program manager will assist the commission with all aspects of installing the system, from public and legislative outreach to customer service center requirements.
DeFebo said no decision has been made to furlough any turnpike workers; he said if the AET system is implemented, most employees could be retained.
The commission studied similar systems in place in Texas, Florida, Colorado and other states. However, he said most of them were short urban toll roads, beltways or spurs. He said the longest AET system was on a road less than 40 miles long.
Nothing has been attempted on this scale, DeFebo said.
The main reason for the possible move is reduced operational expenses, DeFebo said.
A cashless system is much more efficient than the 1930s model of toll collection, he said.
Of every toll dollar collected, about 8 cents goes to cash collection, he said.
He said that of about 2,000 employees working for the commission, 750 are toll collectors whose starting wage is $19 per hour.
We are paying less to operate E-Z Pass even though it handles the majority of our customers, DeFebo said. And it's easier for customers – it eliminates the need to slow down or stop to make payment or get change.
DeFebo said an automatic system would reduce traffic backups at interchanges and cut down the number of fender-benders at toll booths.
In an Associated Press story last week, the estimated cost for the AET conversion was put at $319 million. In the story, state Auditor General Jack Wagner raised concerns over the commission's rising debt, warning lawmakers that state taxpayers will be called on to bail out debts that benefit Wall Street.
Wagner, a Democrat, rebutted earlier testimony by 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.
Bill Runner of Dallas doesn't want to see any layoffs. He said he's concerned about the debt because the turnpike supplies a lot of funding to PennDOT.
Runner said the state should toll the interstate highways like I-80 and I-81.
And that revenue should go just to repair and maintain our roads, he said. It shouldn't go to the general fund.