PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — With a nod to a classic movie, “the Pennsylvania Turnpike is mad as &*%$ and it’s not going to take it anymore.”
For as long as tolls have been collected on the turnpike, there have been drivers trying to evade the tolls and the lost dollars are adding up.
“Two years ago, we were chasing $30 million [in unpaid tolls], and of that we were writing off on an annual basis $3.5 million,” says PA Turnpike CEO Mark Compton. “Last year, we were chasing $40 million and we wrote off $5.4 million.”
And Compton says the situation isn’t getting better.
“It continues to climb in large part due to the Delaware River Bridge, which is under the AET or cashless tolling,” he said. “Also we have interchanges that have come onto the system that are unmanned and E-ZPass only.”
The result is more and more drivers are avoiding or refusing to pay.
Compton expects those numbers to rise since the Beaver Valley Expressway went cashless April 30.
The Toll By Plate system works by taking multiple pictures of your license plate as you exit. The computer then finds the best picture, reads the plate, matches it to the ownership of the vehicle, and adds the amount to your bill. When the computer can’t make out a license plate, it sends to people, so human eyes can determine the plate number. The bill will arrive in your mailbox after 30 days with all the tolls you amassed over the month since your first toll. You will be charged the cash rate but given the opportunity to sign up for E-ZPass and get the discounted rate.
During a stop over at the Oakmont service plaza, Amy Patrick, who was on her way to Baltimore, questioned whether people will actually pay up.
“They’ve already gotten the benefit and to get billed for $2.50…” she said. “There are going to be a lot of people throw them away.”
In fact, the turnpike says of the 900,000 Toll By Plate bills sent out from the Delaware River Bridge last year 0.8 percent were classified as undeliverable. The calculator says that’s about 7,200. Undeliverable includes wrong, or old addresses, and bills sent to the wrong owner.
While bills sent to the wrong owner are infrequent, Compton says the bill includes an area to dispute the charges, and you can call the turnpike’s customer service line. Compton says, “Most if not all of the erroneous reads are taken care of in that process.”
Since the Delaware River Bridge started Toll By Plate, Compton says when it comes to people paying, and the number of mistakes they’ve had, “things are going better than we had anticipated and expected when we opened that facility.”
As for ignoring or trashing your bill, the turnpike is about to get teeth to go after scofflaws.
On Aug. 8, a new law goes into effect that will allow the turnpike to go to PennDOT and have the registration voided on vehicles whose owners don’t pay. Specifically, vehicles that build up six violations and/or $500 in tolls and fines would have their vehicle registration suspended.
Compton points out without a registration, “If you don’t have a registration or a suspended registration, you cannot sell your vehicle, and you cannot get your vehicle inspected.”
The police say if you are caught without a valid registration, some departments will impound your car, others will force you to leave it parked until the issue is resolved and the registration back in force.
The turnpike will begin a concerted effort to get people to pay up before it has to use the stick in August. But there are clearly some vehicle owners that could end up losing their registrations.
“We have some of our violators, our customers, who have been sent over a thousand letters,” Compton says, “and they have ignored those letters.”
Half the money owed to the turnpike is from out of state drivers, and Compton says due to new agreements with neighboring states they will be going after those owners too.
Turnpike Commission spokesman Carl DeFebo tells the “KDKA morning News” the new law is necessary.
“We need that enforcement, that hammer if you will to go after the people who…feel like they don’t need to pay their fair share,” DeFabo said.
DeFebo adds it is only a small percentage that is not paying their toll bills.
“Most people are honest folks and they would pay their violations, they would pay their toll by plate bills,” said DeFebo.