Over the next year, the Pennsylvania Turnpike is expected to have its busiest and most expensive construction schedule ever.

And unlike the current year, when money added to the capital budget was mostly to cover inflation, the agency will add two major projects to its construction program for the fiscal year beginning June 1. Those projects are the replacement of the Beaver River Bridge in Beaver County and the Hawk Falls Bridge on the Northeast Extension in Carbon County, both of which have been underway for a couple of years but expect major progress in the next 12 months.

The commission unanimously approved an operating budget of $450.9 million and a capital budget of $919 million at its meeting Tuesday.

“That is the highest capital spending program we’ve ever had,” Richard Dreher, the agency’s chief financial officer, said in an interview after the budget was approved.

The capital plan is up about $23 million from the current year, but the agency was able to include the two bridge projects because other projects have been completed or have lower costs, Dreher said. Inflation also has eased compared to the current year, when the budget increased by just over $243 million but no new projects were added.

In Beaver County, the turnpike is widening 2 miles of the turnpike to create three lanes in each direction and is replacing the Beaver River Bridge for a total cost of $294 million. The project began in 2013 with the replacement of several bridges around the turnpike to make room for the wider toll road and is expected to be finished in September 2027.

The project involves building the new Beaver River Bridge to the north of the existing bridge and reconfiguring the interchange at Route 18 with a series of new ramps.

The Hawk Falls project will cost an estimated $88 million and includes the replacement of the existing bridge with a 720-foot steel structure. The current bridge is near the end of its service life and no longer meets current design standards because of limited shoulders.

The project also includes the replacement of another 111-foot bridge that passes over a major connection to Hickory Run State Park.

The project should be finished by summer 2026.

The agency also is continuing other major projects such as the replacement of interchange toll plazas with overhead gantries on the main line. Those gantries will record transponders of motorists with E-ZPass or photograph license plates of vehicles without the electronic payment system and mail them a bill.

The agency has completed installation of the gantries from the New Jersey border to Reading and on the Northeastern Extension and plans to begin operating them in January. Installation of similar gantries from Reading west to the Ohio border will start soon and should be finished by 2027.

The agency expects to improve safety by eliminating crashes at toll plazas, create free-flowing traffic similar to other interstate highways when the toll booths are removed, and save as much as $25 million a year by reducing the amount of property the agency needs at interchanges. It also will be able to add more entrance and exit ramps because they will be less expensive to build and maintain.

On the operating side, the agency was able to meet its goal of holding spending to a 3% increase.

“To hit that this year with inflation was a challenge,” Dreher said. “We’ve actually had a flat budget for more than a decade when you consider inflation.”

Through belt-tightening measures, he said, the agency has spent an average of 14% below its budget over the past six years, including 13% this year.

The agency is projecting revenue of $1.7 billion in the new year, up about $100 million. More than half of that revenue, about $912 million, will go to pay debt service created by 15 years of $400 million annual contributions to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation that ended in 2023.

The agency’s debt is about $16 billion.

Commercial traffic is up about 0.5% in the past year and is up about 15% compared to 2019, the year before the pandemic. Passenger traffic remains level at about 96% of the pre-pandemic level.

The budget assumes the agency will have its scheduled 5% annual toll increase in January before the increase begins declining in 2026 to 3% by 2028. After that, 3% annual increases are expected until 2050.

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.

Ed Blazina

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.