The chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee said Wednesday that revelations about turnpike toll scofflaws raise questions about the wisdom of PennDOT’s plan to add tolls to pay to replace nine major interstate bridges.
The Turnpike missed out on $104 million in tolls that went unpaid last year by drivers who either couldn’t be identified by the tolling system or just declined to pay, according to an internal report produced by the Turnpike in July obtained by the Associated Press through a Right-to-Know request.
“How can we have any faith in the proposal for bridge tolling that this isn’t going to happen 10-fold? Or nine-fold, because there are nine candidate bridges,” state Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria County, the chairman of the transportation committee asked Turnpike CEO Mark Compton Wednesday during a hearing on the unpaid tolls.
The Turnpike moved to cashless automated tolling systems and laid off almost 500 toll collectors in 2020. The plan to add tolls to the nine bridges would also rely on automated tolling, Alexis Campbell, a spokeswoman for PennDOT said.
Tolling on those bridges isn’t due to begin until 2023 at the earliest, she said. Campbell said automated tolling is “safer and more efficient” than allowing drivers to pay cash to toll collectors.
“The vast majority of customers do pay what is owed, and it’s possible that by the time we implement, additional reciprocity agreements may be in place,” she said. State officials note that collecting tolls is complicated when drivers come from other states.
Rebecca Oyler, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, which has strongly opposed the expanded use of tolls, said that the only shocking thing about the Turnpike data was the scope of the problem.
“While we were shocked at the amount of unpaid Turnpike tolls, we are not surprised that drivers abuse the system. Any additional increase in toll prices to recoup those losses would essentially force those that follow the rules to subsidize those that don’t. This is exactly what seems to have happened at the Turnpike, which just raised toll-by-plate rates 45 percent,” she said. “When tolls for out-of-state cars aren’t collected, it’s Pennsylvania drivers and businesses who follow the rules that pay the price,” she said.
Oyler said her group has been opposed to the expansion of tolling, “not only because the trucking industry is already paying nearly 40 percent of highway fees and taxes while using less than 10 percent of the miles, but because tolling is an inefficient way to provide infrastructure funding.”
Automated tolling is more complicated than it seems, she said.
“Tolling might sound like a simple solution to funding shortfalls on the surface but, in practice, it’s just not that straightforward. There are many costs involved in the process of collecting the payment, from installing the gantries to mailing out bills, and that’s even before accounting for ‘leakage’” from drivers who don’t pay the tolls, Oyler said.
Compton said that getting more people to enroll in the E-Z Pass program, that allows the turnpike to automatically bill drivers who install transponders in their vehicles.
Vehicle owners who don’t have E-Z Pass transponders are now being billed based on the vehicle’s license plate. The Turnpike’s data showed that about half the drivers in vehicles that didn’t have E-Z Pass transponders didn’t pay their toll.
Compton noted his agency’s 93 percent overall rate of collection on all rides is typical for turnpike operations across the United States.
Compton said the turnpike uses two collection agencies to go after toll-by-plate scofflaws, paying them 10 percent of what they recover.
It also pursues private criminal complaints with the help of local district attorneys and has filed what he called “a lot of lawsuits.”
After three years, the turnpike writes off unpaid tolls, although there was a suggestion that even those long-overdue bills are worth going after.
The turnpike’s July report said that in nearly half the instances in which license plate camera images were not useable, the reason was the plate was not in the frame of the photo. About 41 percent of the image failures were blamed on an obstruction such as a bike rack. In about 1.1 percent of manually voided images, the problem was attributed to intentional obstruction of the license plate.
Compton said the turnpike would like to get reciprocal agreements with other states to go after unpaid bills, but that has proven difficult, in part, because of variation among states in how they penalize those who do not pay up.
“I must tell you, there have not been a lot of suitors” to their partnership hopes, Compton said.
He touted the turnpike’s 86 percent use of E-Z Pass and told senators that working toward the goal of not having to mail out bills will help control costs.
John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for the New Castle News and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.