With fares rising on toll highways, truck drivers taking to the back roads

October 20, 1991|By New York Times News Service

GRANTVILLE, Pa. -- Mike Istuan, a driver for Wills Trucking, is seeing more of the country these days, but not by choice. To avoid paying tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, he spends two to three more hours in his cab, often over two-lane roads that can be a roller coaster ride over hill and dale.

Mr. Istuan, who was taking a lunch break at the P&M 76 Plaza, a truck stop here on Interstate 81 near Harrisburg, is among thousands of drivers of big trucks, vans and even passenger cars crowding onto free interstates and smaller state roads. As they do so, they are causing growing concerns about accidents, congestion and noise.

These drivers would just as soon be cruising on the smoother, more direct Pennsylvania and New Jersey turnpikes, but they are staying off those roads to avoid tolls that have recently risen -- even doubled -- on two of the nation's most heavily traveled routes.

Wills and many other trucking companies have calculated that saving $50 or more in tolls each way for thousands of trips is worth the added time it takes to make deliveries of furniture, appliances and clothing.

Though neither choice is a good one, the companies say, saving money is more important than time because the rates they charge customers have not risen to keep pace with higher tolls and other operating expenses.

Some safety groups and critics in Congress say the tolls and fuel taxes that trucks now pay still do not cover the damage they cause to roads. Many trucking companies strongly disagree.

Speaking of the turnpike increases, Don Sellmann, the New Jersey area operations supervisor for Wills, which is based in Ridgefield, Ohio, said: "They're taking advantage of us. There's no two ways about it."

He said he thought that was particularly true of the northernmost section of the New Jersey Turnpike, above Exit 10 near Edison, because there were no good alternative routes for his company's trucks to make timely deliveries in the New York City area.

The New Jersey Turnpike Authority doubled tolls for large trucks in March, and the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission raised tolls 30 percent in June. Among the Interstate routes affected are I-95 in New Jersey and I-70 and I-76 in Pennsylvania.

As a result, a truck weighing from 45,000 to 62,000 pounds traveling the length of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, from the Ohio line to New Jersey, would pay a new toll of $55.50, compared with the old toll of $42.40.

By comparison, a car covering the same route now pays $14.75, compared with $11.25 before the increase.

A trip on the entire length of the New Jersey Turnpike for a five-axle truck now costs $18.20, compared with $9.10 before the increase. Cars now pay $4.60, compared with $2.70.

Many independent owner-operators, who contract themselves out to companies, say they also try to avoid the tolls because they cannot afford to squeeze their slim operating profits any further.

For owner-operators like Jimmy Williams, who must meet most of his own expenses, including tolls, out of a flat fee he is paid per mile, the burdens are much greater when he seeks to avoid the turnpikes.

It costs him not only extra time, which means he makes fewer deliveries, but he has to pay for the extra fuel and the wear and tear on his truck.

Mr. Williams said he was exasperated by trying to weigh the extra time and cost against fees that do not keep pace with rising expenses.

"I'm quitting this year," he said as he walked to his truck, which he drives under contract for Allied Van Lines.

He said he was going to apply for work at the United Parcel Service, where he said he could earn $17 an hour plus benefits. He will also not have to spend months at a time away from home.

"I want to be paid by the hour," he added.

When the turnpike authorities were set up in the 1940s they were charged with building and maintaining turnpikes. The tolls were used to pay off debt and were supposed to be gradually ended, as Connecticut has done.

Instead, the authorities find themselves saddled with huge debt from $1.1 billion in bonds in Pennsylvania and $2.4 billion in New Jersey.

Instead of winding down, they are gearing up for big new construction projects and say they are being forced to increase tolls to pay off rising interest costs.

Turnpike authorities are also helping to finance or administer projects unrelated to the turnpikes, like building roads for a depressed steel-producing area in southwest Pennsylvania and helping indirectly to reduce the New Jersey budget deficit.

But the new borrowings have put the authorities in a bind. Pennsylvania's toll increases led to a 13 percent decline in truck traffic in June, when the increases took effect. From March through July, New Jersey saw its truck and bus traffic fall by 12 percent, and car traffic by 7 percent, compared with a year earlier.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.