By Associated Press
CARLISLE, Pa. (AP) — More than $104 million in Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls went uncollected last year as the agency fully converted to all-electronic tolling, with the millions of motorists who don’t use E-ZPass having a nearly 1 in 2 chance of riding without paying under the “toll-by-plate” license plate camera system.
An internal turnpike report issued in July and obtained by The Associated Press through a Right-to-Know Law request showed nearly 11 million out of the total of about 170 million turnpike rides generated no revenue for the agency in the year that ended May 31.
“We take this issue very seriously. It is a big number, there’s no question,” turnpike Chief Executive Mark Compton said. “But we, as an organization, are leaving no stone unturned in the way in which we’re going after that leakage.”
Toll revenue “leakage” — an industry euphemism for uncollected tolls — has become the focus of turnpike agencies across the country as the use of E-ZPass transponders and license plate cameras continues to spread.
It is a particular problem for the debt-strapped Pennsylvania Turnpike, where more than half of its total revenue goes to pay borrowing costs and tolls have more than quadrupled in 12 years for the minority of motorists who don’t have E-Z Pass to pay for rides.
At the gas pumps of a busy truck stop along the turnpike in Carlisle last week, driver Corin Bryant said he’s noticed tolls have become much more expensive in recent years and doesn’t much like the idea of free riders.
“We should all pay for it or all not,” said Bryant, of Picayune, Mississippi. “One or the other.”
The turnpike, touted as the nation’s first superhighway when a mostly four-lane segment opened in 1940, is a key part of the interstate highway system. The turnpike runs more than 500 miles, including several sections that connect with a main stem linking the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh regions.
Last year, license plates could not be identified in 1.8 million Pennsylvania Turnpike rides, bills were undeliverable in just over 1 million instances, and motor vehicle agencies failed to provide vehicle owner addresses more than 1.5 million times. An additional 6.7 million transactions were marked as “not paid.”
“I’m kind of shocked at that,” said Rebecca Oyler with the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, representing truckers, who mostly use E-ZPass. “If you think about it, they control the driver. Theoretically, they could stop the driver from exiting before paying; that’s within their ability to do.”
After tolls and fees go uncollected for about three years, the turnpike writes them off.
State House Appropriations Chairman Stan Saylor, a York County Republican, said the revenue bleed has been a concern of his for years and thinks the new figures show a need for action. He said the Legislature should do more to pressure the agency to fix it and that the money could fund a lot of work.
“That kind of loss is amazing,” Saylor said. “I’m sorry, when you have a debt, and the tolls are as high as they are on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, then you need to be more efficient.”
There are several reasons state turnpike agencies experience revenue leakage, said Mark Muriello with the International Bridge, Toll and Tunnel Association, a trade group.
It can result from faulty equipment, such as a dead battery in an E-ZPass transponder; from failure of the camera systems to capture a plate number properly; or from an inability to pursue out-of-state drivers, he said.
The turnpike’s sprawling 552-mile system had 169 million transactions last year, with the lion’s share, about 145 million, going through E-ZPass. The E-ZPass system helped the turnpike collect tolls on about 93% of all trips.
Toll-by-plate was successful 13.3 million times last year, bringing in more than $127 million in fees. Law-abiding drivers have seen cash or toll-by-plate costs for a cross-state turnpike ride climb from about $28 in 2009 to $95 this year. E-ZPass is far cheaper, currently $47 for a cross-state trip.