Free rides value $ 104 million on the Pennsylvania Turnpike funds

CARLISLE, Pennsylvania (AP) – More than $ 104 million in tolls in Pennsylvania was undrawn last year when the agency completely switched to the fully electronic toll option with the toll-by-plate license plate camera system drive without paying.

An internal Turnpike report, issued in July and obtained from The Associated Press through a Right-to-Know Law inquiry, showed that nearly 11 million of the total of 170 million Turnpike rides a year that ended May 31st ended up generating no revenue for the agency.

“We take this issue very seriously. It’s a big number, no question about it, “said Turnpike boss Mark Compton. “But we as an organization leave no stone unturned in how to proceed after this leak.”

Toll revenue leakage – an industry euphemism for tolls not being levied – has become the focus of turnpike agencies across the country as the use of E-ZPass transponders and license plate cameras becomes more widespread.

It’s a particular problem for the indebted Pennsylvania Turnpike, where more than half of its total revenue is used to fund borrowing costs and tolls for the minority of non-EZ pass drivers have more than quadrupled in 12 years.

At the pumps of a busy truck stop along the freeway in Carlisle, driver Corin Bryant said last week that he had noticed that tolls have become much more expensive in recent years and that he doesn’t like the idea of ​​free riders very much.

“We should all pay for it or all not,” said Bryant of Picayune, Mississippi. “One or the other.”

Touted as the country’s first superhighway in 1940 when a predominantly four-lane segment opened, the turnpike is an important part of the interstate highway system. The turnpike extends for more than 500 miles, including several sections connected to a main branch that connects the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh regions.

Last year, license plates could not be identified on 1.8 million Pennsylvania Turnpike trips, invoices went undeliverable in just over 1 million cases, and auto agencies missed vehicle owners’ addresses more than 1.5 million times. Another 6.7 million transactions were marked as “unpaid”.

“I’m shocked by this,” said Rebecca Oyler of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, which represents truckers who primarily use E-ZPass. “If you think about it, they control the driver. In theory, they could prevent the driver from getting out before paying; that is in their ability. “

After tolls and fees have not been collected for about three years, the Turnpike writes them off.

State House Appropriations chairman Stan Saylor, a Republican from York County, said the loss of revenue has been a problem for him for years and believes the new numbers indicate a need for action. He said lawmakers should put more pressure on the agency to fix the problem and that the money could fund a lot of work.

“That kind of loss is amazing,” said Saylor. “I’m sorry, if you’re in debt and the tolls are as high as they are on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, you need to be more efficient.”

There are several reasons government turnpike agencies are losing revenue, said Mark Muriello of the International Bridge, Toll and Tunnel Association, a trade group.

This can be due to faulty equipment, such as B. an empty battery in an E-ZPass transponder; from the failure of the camera systems to correctly capture a license plate; or from the inability to track foreign drivers, he said.

The Turnpike’s sprawling 552-mile system had 169 million transactions last year, with the lion’s share, approximately 145 million, going through E-ZPass. The E-ZPass system helped the Turnpike collect tolls on around 93% of all trips.

Toll-by-Plate was successful 13.3 million times last year and earned more than $ 127 million in fees. Law-abiding drivers have seen the cost of cash or tolls for a state turnpike ride increase from about $ 28 in 2009 to $ 95 this year. E-ZPass is much cheaper, currently $ 47 for state travel.

After a pandemic-related decision last year to lay off hundreds of toll collectors and examiners and stop collecting cash, this year the Turnpike has increased the rate by 45% for drivers who do not have an E-Z passport and instead have to be billed. published.

Instead of the toll chargers, there are license plate cameras and employees of contractors who have to examine photos of vehicles if the system has not automatically generated the name and address of a holder for sending a paper invoice.

The turnpike’s July report said that in almost half of the cases that the license plate camera images were unusable, the reason was that the license plate was not in the frame of the photo. Examples in the report were the lack of front license plates, which are not issued in Pennsylvania.

Approximately 41% of the artifacts were attributed to an obstacle such as a bicycle rack. In around 1.1% of the manually canceled images, the problem was attributed to an intentional obstruction of the license plate.

The International Bridge, Toll and Tunnel Association, when it set up a task force on the matter earlier this year, said lost revenue could result from camera problems, equipment failures, unreliable information from government vehicle authorities, inefficient collection practices, and “customer behavior.”

Toll scammers across the country have been creative, using grease to hide license plates and installing devices that hide license plates as drivers drive past license plate cameras. Weather conditions and camera malfunctions can also prevent signs from being read.

Under a 2017 state law, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission ran PennDOT to suspend vehicle registration in Pennsylvania, and as a result, there are currently about 10,000 on hold. These drivers have had six or more unpaid toll violations, at least $ 500 in toll violations, or have defaulted on a payment plan for unpaid tolls or fees.

The Turnpike also urges district attorneys to collect service theft charges for those who owe $ 2,000 or more, and has been referring overdue payments to driver debt collection agencies in Pennsylvania and beyond since 2002.

Drivers outside of the state are a particular problem. The Turnpike receives vehicle registration addresses from 49 other states – only Iowa does not provide them – but has not yet made any arrangements that would allow them to currently suspend registrations outside of the state for unpaid toll bills.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike signs such an agreement with Delaware and is in talks with New York.

State Transportation Secretary Yassmin Gramian, chair of the turnpike board, said the state’s total tolls are in line with other states and slightly above the national average.

Gramian said the Turnpike Commission wants more power to prosecute toll opponents outside of the states, but that requires legislation in those states. The differences between states in terms of the penalties and fees they impose on turnpike riders are another problem, Compton said.

“Federal consistency would certainly help in this area, and interstate reciprocity is an ongoing conversation between toll authorities across the country,” said Gramian.

Proponents of the all-electronic tolls say it improves traffic flow, curbs pollution and requires less maintenance than manned toll booths that accept cash. As a result of the layoffs in 2020, the Turnpike’s workforce was reduced from almost 1,900 to currently more than 1,300. Total toll revenue was approximately $ 1.3 billion last year, with E-ZPass accounting for more than $ 1 billion.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike approved a $ 45 million contract to develop and implement a fully electronic toll in 2014 and is currently paying TransCore approximately $ 10 million per year to operate the toll-for-license system.

It is also spending $ 129 million moving toll booths onto bridges on the freeway, rather than the stationary facilities currently located at the interchanges, a project that is currently being designed and executed.

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