Turnpike officials say travelers should plan ahead to avoid turnpike sticker shock this year

Out-of-state vacationers and drivers without E-ZPass reported instances of “sticker shock” to turnpike call centers last summer.

Out-of-state vacationers and drivers without E-ZPass reported instances of “sticker shock” to turnpike call centers last summer. Doug Kerr/Flickr

By Cassie Miller

When paper tickets disappeared from toll booth plazas along the Pennsylvania Turnpike in June 2020, so did any visual record of toll rates at the toll roads’ entrance and exit junctions.

Since then, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, the state agency that oversees the state’s toll roads, has directed travelers to the Pennsylvania Turnpike website for up-to-date toll rates and a toll calculator tool. 

“Due to the pandemic, we had to trigger AET (All Electronic Tolling) sooner than anticipated and we did use messaging at the toll booths of how to find rating info – but that tactic did not appear to be effective,” Rosanne Placey, a spokesperson for the commission said. “So, this year, we do have tactics to inform less frequent users of the most convenient and least expensive ways to travel the Turnpike – so they are aware well in advance as they are planning their travels.”

Jim Sikorski Jr., a Pennsylvania advocate for the National Motorists Association, agreed with the commission that messaging at toll booths might not be the best distribution method. “It would be very hard for the turnpike to post toll rates for E-ZPass and Toll-By-Plate at the entrances, for various reasons,” Sikorski said, adding that “a massive sign could pose a safety hazard.” 

While more than 80% of customers who responded to the commission’s AET Attitude, Awareness and Usage surveys indicated “awareness of AET, how to use it and how to pay for it,” Placey said out-of-state vacationers and drivers without E-ZPass, the automated toll system, reported instances of “sticker shock” to turnpike call centers last summer. 

“The turnpike is also a very expensive road to drive,” Sikorski said. “So you make the choice to either pay whatever the toll is, or find an alternate route.”

Drivers without E-ZPass can opt to use the turnpike’s “toll by plate” option, but it’s more expensive than the E-ZPass option and has been the subject of scrutiny in the General Assembly for its failure to capture millions of dollars in tolls through its camera billing system in the two years since the switch to all electronic tolling. 

“As part of our customer messaging and advertising, we do promote awareness of AET and how to find rate information, that E-ZPass is the least expensive way to travel and other tips to prepare to travel our roadway,” Placey said, adding that nearly 70% of customers surveyed said they preferred AET over “traditional interchanges.”

But toll rate visibility isn’t Sikorski’s top concern when it comes to E-ZPass and the turnpike.

“What is a more pressing concern are the fees for when things do not go quite right, such as when an E-ZPass transponder is not read,” Sikorski said. “These are commonly called V-Tolls. It would help if there could be a power-on LED to know it is working, a beep when the transponder is read, a low-battery warning, ability to change (the) battery, (or) be able to shut the transponder off if in storage, etc. In the old days, the entrances and exits had what looked like traffic lights to say if the transponder was read.”

Currently, the commission says that drivers looking for information on turnpike rates, billing, obtaining an E-ZPass transponder or calculating trip costs should visit the turnpike website or mobile app – “PA Toll Pay.”

“The toll calculator is among the most visited and used pages on our website,” Placey said. “It also provides the customer a number of different options to access and use the information – either from their own location, or from the entry/exit points they intend using, or they may also look at the full toll schedule book. If, after looking at the toll rates, someone wishes to get an E-ZPass, there are immediate prompts to enable them to do that.”

For drivers who cannot find the answer to their question on the website or app, Placey recommends calling the turnpike’s customer assistance center at 800-331-3414, which operates Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Cassie Miller is a reporter for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.