In Part 1 of this article the early history of the Pennsylvania Turnpike was highlighted. In Part 2, an overview of the Turnpike from its opening in 1940 until now is provided.
During the fall of 1940, most of the work on the Turnpike was ending. At speeds up to 100 mph, test drives were made on the new highway. Other preparations were taking place as well. A key one was law enforcement on the Turnpike. The PTC wanted its own law enforcement agency; however, the state’s Attorney General decided that the Pennsylvania Motor Police (now the Pennsylvania State Police) had jurisdiction on the Turnpike. A group of 59 troopers was trained at the state police academy to specifically patrol the Turnpike; their costs would be paid from the Turnpike’s toll revenue.
The Turnpike opens
The Pennsylvania Turnpike officially opened to traffic on October 1, 1940. When it opened, it measured 160 miles long, from Carlisle to Irwin. The Turnpike cut the average travel time between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg by three hours. It also helped the economies of the towns along its route.
Planners had predicted that 1.3 million vehicles would utilize the Turnpike annually. However, there were days that as many as 10,000 vehicles used the Turnpike. Early usage averaged 2.4 million vehicles on the mostly four-lane roadway each year.
Because the traffic counts were much higher than planned for, the seven two-lane tunnels rapidly became obsolete. Plans were considered to bypass the tunnels or to double their width.
The Turnpike’s first expansion project was from Carlisle to Valley Forge. It opened on November 20, 1950. The next two extensions lengthened the Turnpike from Irwin (southeast of Pittsburgh) to the border with Ohio and from Valley Forge to the border with New Jersey. The Northeastern Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike was the longest of the various extensions – 110 miles. The new roadway ran from Montgomery County in the south to Scranton. This was the last expansion project until 1989.
When it was built in the late 1930s-1940, the latest safety innovations were used on the Turnpike. And although it was one of the safest highways in the United States, many safety innovations had been developed in the 20+ years since it opened. Among the improvements the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission made were “better pavement drainage and stabilization, 300-foot rights-of-way, 60-foot medians, curves added to the straightaways” to keep motorists’ minds on the road, computerized toll booths and the plazas were moved further away from the roadway.
By the early 1960s, the two-lane tunnels were becoming an even bigger issue because of the ever-increasing traffic counts. The PTC commissioned a study at two tunnels; among the recommendations was a 13.1-mile bypass that “included reconstruction and relocation of the Breezewood Interchange and construction of a new east-west service plaza at Sideling Hill.” The Sideling Hill bypass opened to traffic on November 26, 1968; the Ray’s Hill and Sideling Hill tunnels were no longer needed.
The PTC developed a plan in 1970 to update/improve the Turnpike’s original roadway through the Allegheny Mountains. A key feature was two lanes for cars and two lanes for trucks on both sides of the roadway. For various reasons, the original plan was scaled back – from $1.1 billion to $356 million. Under the revised plan, the most heavily traveled areas would be upgraded to eight lanes with a 70-mph speed limit.
The Pennsylvania legislature passed Act 61 in 1985, which mandated that the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission complete Route 60, as well as assigning it responsibility for the Mon-Fayette Expressway.
A tolled freeway that was first proposed in the mid-1950s to support the state’s then booming steel industry, the Mon-Fayette Expressway will eventually link I-68 near Morgantown, West Virginia with I-376 near Monroeville, Pennsylvania. When the steel industry collapsed in the 1980s, promotion for the freeway was changed to support economic development in communities along its route.
A number of improvements were also made during the decade to the Turnpike. Among them were: “the addition of truck climbing lanes; a number of interchanges were renovated and expanded; emergency call boxes were installed along the Turnpike; and modifications were made to the Turnpike’s service plaza locations and food offerings.”
As computer systems were improved, the Turnpike’s toll system was upgraded. A 2 x 5-inch ticket with a magnetic strip began to be used; each ticket contained specific fare information. In addition, all vehicles passing through toll lanes were weighed.
Just before the end of the decade, the Turnpike hit a key milestone, recording its two billionth traveler on Halloween 1989.
Construction began on the Turnpike’s first major expansion since the Northeastern Extension was built in 1958. Turnpike 60, also known as the James E. Ross Highway, launched the Turnpike’s next wave of expansion.
Also in 1990, the Mon-Fayette Expressway, designated as Turnpike 43, opened to traffic. The PTC began two new segments of the expressway system – Interstate 68 to State Route 43 and the I-70 to State Route 51.
The Northeastern Extension was also upgraded in the 1990s. A key project was the Lehigh Tunnel. It was the Turnpike’s last two-lane tunnel; it was widened and opened to traffic on November 22, 1991. The 506 miles of the Turnpike were all at least four lanes when this improvement was made.
The original 160 miles of the Pennsylvania Turnpike turned 50 in 1990. Sections needed to be rebuilt. The reconstruction began in 1998; the first segments to be rebuilt included those between mileposts 94 and 99, mileposts 76 to 85 and mileposts 187 to 197.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike’s original 160 miles had increased to 514 miles by the 21st century. As highway-related technology improved, the PTC purchased intelligent devices in order to monitor the roadway and travel conditions. Among the technologies implemented were “roadway cameras, a highway advisory radio system, a truck rollover and height alert system, fog detection system, a traffic flow detection system and weather stations.” In addition, the PTC began a public information program that provided travel conditions/alerts via the internet, telephone, email and text messages.
The 7.8-mile “Mason-Dixon” link, which was part of the Mon-Fayette Expressway system and connected Pennsylvania and West Virginia, was opened. Two additional sections of the Turnpike opened to traffic – the I-70 to State Route 51 project and Phase 1 of the Uniontown to Brownsville project. A six-mile project from State Route 60 to US Route 22, which is signed as I-576, opened on October 11, 2006.
The Turnpike implemented the use of the E-ZPass system across its roadways in stages throughout this time period. In addition, the Turnpike’s service plazas were also upgraded and renovated during the decade.
Two construction projects highlight the 2010s. The Uniontown to Brownsville section of the Mon-Fayette Expressway opened, and groundbreaking marked the start of the U.S. Route 22 to I-79 project. Concurrently, reconstruction of aging sections of the Turnpike continued. Among the improvements were “new grading, drainage systems, pavement, guide rails and a new median that was widened to 18 feet.” Shoulders were also widened to provide better emergency vehicle access. Much of the original concrete was recycled to “provide a base for the new highway” segments.
2020 and beyond
As part of its ongoing efforts to modernize, the PTC began a pilot program, testing All-Electronic Tolling (AET) at multiple locations. AET is a cashless tolling system, and because the tests were successful the PTC announced that it would convert to AET in October 2021. However, because of the pandemic, the Commission decided to end cash collections at Turnpike toll booths and convert its entire system immediately to AET.
The plan was that the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission would bill drivers through E-ZPass, which tracks drivers through a transponder, or through a toll-by-plate system, which captures images of license plates and sends invoices to drivers through the mail.
Unfortunately, the Turnpike reportedly lost more than $104 million in toll revenue during 2020 because vehicles passed through its toll-by-plate system without being billed. According to an internal TPC report obtained by the Associated Press, the Commission did not bill 1.8 million drivers because the system failed to read the license plates of their vehicles.
The Interstate Highway System
Planning for the Pennsylvania Turnpike took place in the mid- to late 1930s, and it opened in 1940. The legislation establishing (and funding) the Interstate Highway System (IHS) did not take place until 1956. (To read articles about the beginnings of the IHS, click here and here.)
However, the Pennsylvania Turnpike is now part of the IHS. It is part of I-76 between the Ohio border and Valley Forge, I-70 (concurrent with I-76) between New Stanton and Breezewood, I-276 between Valley Forge and Bristol Township, and I-95 from Bristol Township to the New Jersey border.
Author’s note: FreightWaves thanks the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and pahighways.com for information and photos used in the articles about the Pennsylvania Turnpike.