Priceless tickets generate public lashing for Penn Pike (PLUS COMMENT)

December 19, 2010
By Peter Samuel

A decision to omit the toll rate schedule from toll tickets to be issued from Jan 2 on the Pennsylvania Turnpike has produced an outpouring of criticism. State auditor-general Jack Wagner says he is "appalled" and has asked the Commission to reverse the move.

The state's auditor general said: "It seems like we're withdrawing from communicating with the public when it should be doing the opposite."

Wagner called it giving motorists the "the mushroom treatment" and the old saw of keeping you in the dark and feeding you manure.

The motorist organization AAA is critical, saying motorists will pull up at toll booths not knowing what they owe, and it will cause backups.

Reporters and editorial writers have written scathing, often sarcastic, pieces. 

Paul Nussbaum of the Philadelphia Inquirer: "Tolls are going up again. You already knew that. The difference this time is that cash tolls will increase three times as much as electronic tolls - and the price won't appear on your ticket...."

Then: "Imagine if this catches on. Supermarkets could let shoppers discover the price of milk at the checkout counter. Gas stations could avoid the hassle of posting new prices every day or two. And the price of a Big Mac could be as secret as the recipe for its sauce..."

Paul Carpenter of The Morning Call in Allentown: "Tis the season to be jolly about the surprises motorists soon will be getting - not under their Christmas trees but when they roll up to Pennsylvania Turnpike toll booths, where the secret of how much they have to pay will be revealed, fa la la la la."

The editorial writer at the Pittsburgh Tribune Review declared: "The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission obviously is trying to hide its Jan 2 toll increases - 10 percent for those who pay cash, but 3 percent for E-ZPass users - by eliminating dollar amounts from toll tickets.
And that stinks.

"A spokesman claims the turnpike will save money by not printing new tickets for annual toll increases dictated by a 2007 state law. But such supposed cost-consciousness by such a bloated, wasteful agency is too little, too late to be credible."

They ended: "But that's what an inefficient, unpopular agency does about fees that turn off its captive market: It hides them, even though that's wrong - and another reason to do away with the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission."

The Turnpike's position emphasizes cost saving

The Turnpike Commission's position has been that with annual adjustments of toll rates they'll have  unacceptably high ticket manufacturing costs with toll rate schedules. That's because usage of tickets cannot be easily forecast, so to prevent any runout of tickets at the interchanges, they always try to have a two-month average supply on hand at each interchange. 

And so they end up trashing large numbers of surplus toll tickets after each annual toll rate change with old toll rates printed on them.

The tickets have a black magnetic data strip. On issue from the ticket dispensing machine that black data strip is encoded with the time and place of entry and axle numbers, and retained on the ticket for computing the toll on exit.

Costs

Tickets cost the Turnpike 0.37 cents each - based on a per roll cost of $11.91 and 3200 tickets per roll of tickets. This year they've used 23,465 rolls or 75m tickets costing $279k. That's down a bit on 2009's 25,070 rolls and 80.2m tickets.

They ended last year when toll rates went up with 4,114 surplus rolls or 13.2m tickets that had cost $49k. In addition there were special disposal costs to ensure they don't get used to defraud the Turnpike.

And there are significant costs in setting up for a printing of new rates. Says the Turnpike: "(I)t takes untold hours of employee labor overseeing the six-month ticket production, printing, testing and distribution process."

Eliminating the need to order reprints of tickets each time tolls are changed will allow more economical bulk ordering, and end the mass throwaways of "obsolete" tickets.

How to get toll info

Cash paying customers (38% of the total) can still find their toll rates by four methods the Turnpike points out:

- a toll-rate telephone number 866 976 TRIP which uses voice recognition asking the caller for the entry and exit by name or number, and responds with the toll (if it handles your accent)

- www.paturnpike.com, then Toll Info and it gives you a calculator where you insert entry, exit, toll class, payment mode, and get the toll, or

- download a printable tolls schedule and print from the Turnpike website

- ask for a printed toll schedule from a toll collector next time you drive the Turnpike and pay cash

Misguided criticism (COMMENT)

Most of the criticism of the Turnpike Commission is silly - thoughtlessly imitative, with everyone 'piling on' the Turnpike. Most of the critics are repeating the same largely invalid points in different ways.

Far from "hiding" the increase in toll rates the Turnpike's decision to end to the printed schedule has highlighted the toll increases, and their planned greater frequency. It has publicized the increases, not hidden them - as if that were ever possible.

Printed schedule not a price tag

The toll schedule on the toll ticket is NOT at all like a price tag on a product in a store, allowing you to see the price of the product before you buy, and to decide whether or not to buy, as the critics claim. The toll rate schedule on the toll ticket is only made available on entry to the Turnpike, AFTER the driver has committed to purchase of a trip. So it doesn't assist the motorist in deciding whether the Turnpike provides value for money - like a product price tag. Product price tags provide price information BEFORE the decision to buy the product at a point where the customer can buy or not buy.

The two thirds of drivers with an E-ZPass transponder never even get a toll ticket so printing toll schedules on tickets only potentially provides information to a minority of drivers - and when they are already on the Turnpike.

But there's a bigger issue.Do we really want drivers studying a complicated toll rate schedule while driving? Do we really want drivers assembling their toll with the right bills and coins while driving?

Unsafe distraction

The toll schedule on the toll ticket could well be viewed as a thoroughly unsafe distraction from driving. Most vehicles have a solo driver. It is a dangerous for the driver to be studying the toll schedule on the ticket while sailing down the Turnpike, or when approaching the toll plaza.

Most drivers never give the toll schedule a glance. Most probably don't even know the toll schedule is there on the toll ticket. They just take the toll ticket, place it in a convenient place nearby, drive, and hand it over to the toll collector at the other end of their trip.

The first they know about the amount of the toll is when it pops up on the patron display in the exit toll lane. At that point the driver finds cash to cover the toll, and hands it to the toll collector. The toll rate schedule might as well not be there on the ticket for most trips.

True, some vehicles have people traveling with the driver - a spouse, family or a friend - who could read the toll ticket. True, some solo drivers will stop off at a service plaza to get fuel, a meal etc and they could safely study the toll rates on the ticket there at the service plaza.

True they could study the toll rate schedule, but do they? Our guess is they have other things on their mind at the service plaza - fuel, food, drink, bathroom matters.

The number of motorists who actually use that ticket toll rate schedule is probably quite tiny. The critics, we think, are making a great fuss out of almost nothing.

In our opinion, drivers will be better off without the toll schedule printed on the toll ticket. The toll ticket shouldn't even have the Turnpike exits printed on it. That's a distraction too. The toll ticket should simply say "Pennsylvania Turnpike Toll Ticket" with the Penn Pike logo to remind the absent-minded what the darned thing is, so it doesn't get thrown in a  trash can at the service plaza, or confused with a parking garage ticket. The important information is magnetically stored in that black strip.

Better ways to price tag

There are better ways of "price-tagging" the Turnpike:

- the four existing methods cited by the Turnpike above, plus

(5) signs with the toll schedules on approach roads BEFORE the driver has committed to the Turnpike

(6) traveler information radio

(7) route-planning software applications, Orbitz or Expedia-like

All these are of value to the two thirds of drivers who never even get toll tickets, with or without toll schedules printed on them.

AET will end the need for tickets


Finally, this is an argument without legs. Cash payment of tolls won't be around very much longer, or toll tickets, with or without price schedules. Tollers are moving inexorably toward all-electronic tolling (AET) in which payment is by transponder (E-ZPass) account or license plate recognition. The Turnpike is engaging consultants to plan the transition to cashless, ticketless tolling.

Our criticism of the Turnpike would be: what's taken you so long? 407ETR, a trip toll system of comparable size, complexity and revenues to the Penn Pike has been around for a decade now - up in Toronto Canada - without the tickets, without cash, and much more efficient and providing better service to motorists, and better return to investors.

Cash payment on the road is a dying payment mode, and deservedly. It is unnecessary, inefficient, expensive, inconvenient, and delays motorists. We say: good riddance to the toll schedules on the tickets. And to toll tickets themselves.

TOLLROADSnews 2010-12-19

A reader comments: "What is printed on the toll ticket is a non-issue now that the Turnpike provides an online toll calculator that can compute tolls due for any part of the East-West Mainline and the NE Extension, and that calculator works with standard Web browsers (it works with Firefox) and with smartphones (and it does - I just tested it with my Blackberry, and it seems to work correctly). I don't see what the problem is.

One curiosity though. According to the PTC Web site, the 'discount' for paying with E-ZPass to drive from the Ohio line to Breezewood which I have done many times is exactly $0.06 (6 cents).  Not much of an economic incentive to go cashless!"

Editor: this may be a mistake. I'll check. 2010-12-20 9:15

UPDATE: The Turnpike Commission subsequently decided (Dec 22) to put the pritned toll schdule back on the tickets, see:

http://www.tollroadsnews.com/node/5047

TOLLROADSnews UPDATE 2010-12-22 18:45


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