Welcome electronic toll collection

November 20, 2012

There’s not much of a demand for telegraph operators nowadays.

Milkmen are also finding a limited market for their skills, along with switchboard operators. And anyone hoping to build a career by setting pins in a bowling alley had better hope to pay bills with a plush trust fund.

Before too long, the toll collectors along the Pennsylvania Turnpike could be joining them.

In a hearing in Harrisburg last week before a joint House and Senate Transportation Committee, interim turnpike CEO Craig Shuey revealed plans to eliminate the toll booths that straddle the 545-mile stretch of pavement over the next five years and replace them with electronic methods of payment. Users of E-ZPass will continue to drive under “gantries” that record the information from transponders within vehicles and deduct money from their E-ZPass accounts. Drivers who haven’t yet signed on with E-ZPass will have photographs taken of their license plates and eventually find a bill in their mailbox, the Patriot-News in Harrisburg reported.

Converting to electronic toll collection is expected to save the debt-saddled Turnpike Commission somewhere in the neighborhood of $70 million annually in manpower costs and $20 million in operational expenses.

Though we have some questions on how efficiently tolls will be collected from drivers who don’t have E-ZPass and the expense of going after scofflaws, eliminating the toll booths will almost certainly save taxpayers some money and make the often arduous trek across the commonwealth more convenient. The long waits at toll booths and fishing for change will be a thing of the past.

A win-win? Pretty much, except for the 700 or so union-affiliated toll collectors, whose jobs will be phased out, along with the roughly 100 nonunion employees who help keep the toll booths operating. As the time when the toll booths will be eliminated gets closer, the volume of the arguments that they should stay in order to safeguard jobs will almost certainly grow louder. One individual commenting on the Patriot-News website lamented, “Every time a human is replaced by a machine, it makes it more difficult for the economy to get better...These people do not just vanish into thin air.”

True enough. But a lot of the milkmen whose services were no longer needed eventually settled into retirement or found other employment, along with the telegraph and switchboard operators and the bowling alley pin-setters. Jobs – particularly those financed with our tax dollars – should be preserved if they are needed, not just as make-work to keep wage-earners employed.

The proposed switch to all-electronic collection has been described by Shuey as the most significant change in turnpike operations since the highway opened in 1940. Let’s hope no one slams the brakes on this.



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