First of a two-day series

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission's 44 percent toll hike coming this August is just the latest manifestation of a nearly two-decade-long spending binge that has left the agency with billions of dollars of debt, a doubling of tolls and the prospect of more to come.

Part of the spending spree was the unavoidable result of maintaining the Turnpike — the nation's oldest superhighway — and adding much-needed upgrades, such as the bigger Mid-County toll plaza outside Philadelphia.

But along the way, the Turnpike's original concept of you-use-it, you-pay-for-it morphed into a borrow-and-spend cycle driven by construction of expensive highway projects of questionable need and ever-rising employee costs.

Those decisions were made easy by a closed loop of Turnpike officials, who have no direct accountability to taxpayers, and legislators, who ordered the highway system's expansion but have no budgetary authority over the Turnpike.

Thus, when the Turnpike introduced E-ZPass, reducing the need for human toll collectors, how much did it cut from the toll collection budget?

It didn't.

Costs shot up by millions of dollars.

''When is this going to stop?'' demanded state Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, who objected to the Turnpike Commission's rapid approval in January of the toll hike as much as the increase itself. ''It seems like it's never-ending anymore.''

Boscola doesn't realize how correct her observation is.

No end to the Turnpike's demand for more money is in sight.

The really grim financial news is that even after the toll increase, the Turnpike still needs billions more for projects that are under way or in development.

Don't think that if you avoid the Turnpike, the bills are someone else's problem, either. You help pay the tab if you drive or own a car in Pennsylvania.

With a more-modest expansion, the steady growth in traffic on the Turnpike could have made the toll increase unnecessary or at least smaller, and the revenue could have piled up in a maintenance reserve fund.

Instead, growth has speeded up the drain on the Turnpike's resources. The cost of borrowing to finance major construction, which took a nickel out of every revenue dollar before the binge began, now consumes 31 cents.

All this for an agency that before the spending spree was on the verge of closing the toll booths, converting into a ''free'' highway and putting itself out of existence.

Said Tom Lewis, author of a history of the interstate highway system: ''These authorities, it's just a license to steal, the way they're set up.''

When the Turnpike opened in 1940, planners envisioned a road financed by users who would pay off the bonds floated to finance construction of the original 160-mile ''mainline'' highway from Irwin, Westmoreland County, to Middlesex, Cumberland County.

That, however, didn't take into account maintenance, improvements or a state Legislature ready to saddle the public with Turnpike bills that would take generations to pay.