PITTSBURGH — Truck traffic on the western end of the Pennsylvania Turnpike has declined sharply since officials began increasing tolls annually four years ago.
Some worry that the latest increases beginning on Sunday will drive more trucks onto local roads as truckers seek to avoid higher tolls. Tolls will have jumped 35 percent for E-ZPass customers and 71 percent for cash customers since 2009.
"We have always gotten a good share of local truck traffic on Route 30, but it's become a lot worse. I don't think that many trucks are making that many local deliveries," said Joe Bellucci of Hempfield, who lives near the highway running parallel to the turnpike.
As of Sunday, drivers operating Class 7 trucks — tractor-trailers between 62,001 and 80,000 pounds — will pay nearly $145 to go between the Warrendale toll plaza in Allegheny County and the Delaware River Bridge in Bucks County, compared with $107 in 2008. Those paying cash will cough up almost $184.
Turnpike officials blame decreased truck traffic on the recession, not higher tolls.
"Is there a tipping point where tolls might start to affect traffic? Probably. But I don't think we can put a finger on when that might be," said turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo.
According to the latest turnpike data that measure traffic between interchanges, average daily truck traffic dropped between the Ohio state line and the Donegal interchange in Westmoreland County in a range from 3.4 percent to 14 percent since 2008, varying by section.
The decrease in overall traffic, including cars, was not nearly as steep. The biggest decline in truck traffic occurred between the New Stanton and Donegal interchanges.
In 2008, before the run of annual toll increases began, an estimated 11,622 trucks a day — or 33 percent of all traffic — used the 16-mile stretch. In 2011, the most recent year for which data are available, 10,000 trucks a day used that stretch, representing 29 percent of all traffic.
Jim Runk, executive director of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, is not surprised by the reduced numbers. He said the trucking industry took a hit from the recession but began to rebound in 2011.
"It's still not back up to pre-recession levels," he said.
As for tolls, Runk said: "A number of our members said they would use alternate routes, like I-80, to get to the Northeast" upon a 25 percent toll hike in 2009.
That was the first in a run of increases that started after passage of the Act 44 transportation funding law, which requires the turnpike to turn over $450 million a year to PennDOT for road, bridge and transit needs statewide.
"For some, it was probably worth it. For others, it wasn't. For companies down in Pittsburgh, it takes a lot of fuel and time to go up to (Interstate) 80 just to avoid tolls, and I doubt seriously that the long-haul guys would use Route 30 all the way across the state," Runk said, citing the route's many hills, long two-lane stretches and spots of congestion and traffic signals.
Geoff Muessig, executive vice president of the Strip District-based Pitt Ohio trucking company, said: "Pitt-Ohio handles (time-)sensitive shipments with stringent on-time delivery requirements. As a result, we continue to use the Pennsylvania Turnpike to transport shipments despite the steep increase in toll rates."
Toll increases were rare before the 2009 increase. Between the turnpike's opening in 1940 and 2009, tolls went up just five times — in 1969, 1978, 1987, 1991 and 2004. The hike on Sunday will be the fifth in five years.
In 2010, the turnpike introduced an E-ZPass "incentive program," imposing lower increases for motorists signed up for the electronic toll-collection system.
On Sunday, tolls will go up just 2 percent for E-ZPass users and 10 percent for cash-paying customers.
DeFebo said motorists using E-ZPass paid about 63 percent of all tolls in 2010, but it's close to 69 percent today. The turnpike plans to convert to an all-electronic system within five years.
What impact toll increases have on roads near the turnpike is hard to gauge, officials say.
Jason Rigone, executive director of the Westmoreland County Industrial Development Corp., said increased development along Route 30 likely plays a bigger role in boosting truck traffic.
Though the county's population dipped in the past two decades, Route 30 communities such as Penn, Manor Borough, Unity, North Huntingdon and Hempfield gained population. In the western part of the county, commercial growth occurred with the additions of Wal-Mart, Target, Sam's Club, Giant Eagle and other stores; industrial development and growth at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport occurred elsewhere in the county.
Officials plan projects to improve roads, including one that Rigone said would cut the drive time from Latrobe to the turnpike to 15 minutes from 40 minutes and would ease Route 30 congestion.
"There has been a consistent increase in truck traffic on at least a half-dozen roads that are shortcuts for trucks. I can't attest to any increase solely because of the toll increases, but certainly we haven't seen any decrease in truck traffic because of them," said Doug Weimer, chairman of the Hempfield Board of Supervisors.
"My worry is that a municipality like Hempfield is going to see more truck traffic because of the increase in January," Weimer said.
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