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Audit of pricey PA Turnpike shows millions got free rides

After ending cash collections and rolling out an all-electronic camera-capture system for non E-ZPass drivers, the Pennsylvania turnpike let more than $104 million in unpaid tolls slip through its coffers.

HARRISBURG, Pa. (CN) — The Pennsylvania Turnpike was named the most expensive toll road in the world earlier this year by the money magazine Budget Direct. For 11 million drivers who passed through the state's turnstiles in 2020, however, their fare was free.

Those are the findings of an internal audit that looked at data from 170 million turnpike rides from May 31, 2021, to May 31, 2020 — two months after the turnpike switched to all-electronic tolling as part of bid to cut costs during the pandemic.

While laying off hundreds of toll collectors and auditors, Pennsylvania increased the toll for drivers who do not have E-ZPass by 45%, fulfilling a $45 million contract approved in 2014 to go all electronic. For drivers who do not have a transponder, a camera system photographs their license plate, and the state sends a bill in the mail.

Pennsylvania pays some $10 million a year for TransCore to operate that toll-by-plate system, but the results of the audit released in July show that motorists whose E-ZPass transponder was either malfunctioning or nonexistent stood a roughly 50% chance of never getting that bill.

For the roughly 11 million vehicles that the system failed to charge, 6.7 million transactions were marked unpaid, 1 million bills could not be delivered and 1.8 million license plates couldn’t be identified, according to a July audit first reported Tuesday morning by the Associated Press, which obtained as part of a request under the state's Right to Know Law.

The audit also shows that motor vehicle industries failed to provide addresses for vehicle owners 1.5 million times. Out of 50 states, Iowa is the only one that does not provide vehicle information to the turnpike.

All of this adds up to more than $104 million in tolls that the highway missed out on, according to the audit. The turnpike will write off uncollected tolls after about three years.

Such "leakage" losses, as they are known in the industry, are nothing to sniff at, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission agreed, but she also emphasized that the E-ZPass system successfully collected tolls on 93% of trips taken on the road. Toll revenues from E-ZPass alone accounted for more than $1 billion of total toll revenues of $1.3 billion last year.

“In fact, collections at these cashless tolling locations meet or exceed tolling industry collection standards,” spokeswoman Rosanne Placey said in an email Tuesday.

Placey credited the turnpike's high overall collection rate to the 86% of customers using prepaid E-ZPass accounts that can be debited electronically.

"The remaining 14% are Toll By Plate customers, and leakage was anticipated from the beginning — and has been a fact of life for the PA Turnpike and toll agencies worldwide well before the introduction of All Electronic Tolling,” Placey wrote.

Spanning more than 500 miles, the turnpike is a transportation staple within the state with multiple arteries connecting the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh on opposite ends of the state. According to Budget Direct, to ride 360 miles on the road from the western and eastern tips of the state, it costs $112.90.

But the turnpike spends more than half of its total revenue trying to pay off borrowing costs, a debt the agency has tried to stem by with four toll increases over the last 12 years for those without an E-ZPass.

State House Representative Nick Pisciottano underscored this dynamic in a tweet Tuesday.

“Seemingly ever-increasing toll costs could be offset or eliminated if everyone who should be paying, was paying,” the Allegheny County Democrat posted.

Fellow Democratic Representative Mike Zabel meanwhile questioned the mid-pandemic switch to electronic-only tolls.

“Pennsylvania was clearly not ready for all-electronic tolling, and now we’ve lost both jobs and revenue,” Zabel tweeted. “Every single lost PA Turnpike attendant position should be reinstated — to save us money!”

The turnpike shrank its workforce from around 1,900 to 1,300 last year, while also paying $129 million to relocate tolling points from physical structures on the interchange to gantries.

Those who like all-electronic tolling cite reasons like smoother traffic flow, less pollution and less maintenance than cash-accepting booths.

To ensure that all riders pay their fair share, The Associated Press quoted state House Republican Stan Saylor as stating that state lawmakers should put pressure on the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

According to the AP's summary of the July audit, license plates were not in the photo for almost half of the unreadable license plate shots. Cars that lack front license plates were a big reason for this issue. Another 41% of the image failures resulted from the plate being blocked by bike racks or other externally tethered equipment. In 1% of cases, drivers appear to have obstructed their license plates intentionally with grease or some other devices that cover up plates when the vehicle goes past cameras. Weather like rain and snow can also obscure license plate readability.

Placey said Tuesday that the turnpike’s goal is to collect all tolls but that “leakage is an established part of the tolling business as it is in any retail business model.”

“It is something we take seriously,” she said, adding that the commission does everything in its power to minimize it, including using collection agencies, suspending vehicle registrations, lawsuits and even felony charges against those who don’t pay. 

“Most customers do the right thing and pay what’s due,” Placey said. “We owe it to these honest citizens to do all we can to collect from everyone.”

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