So far, the ideas has not advanced beyond the talking stage.By Jon Delano

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — State senators grilled Pennsylvania Turnpike officials at a Senate Transportation Committee hearing over the loss of more than $100 million in toll revenue last year.

Over a year ago, the commission eliminated real people at the tollbooths, replacing them with an automated toll-by-mail system for those who did not have an E-ZPass

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But there’s a problem. Only 54 percent of those turnpike users who were mailed a bill actually paid up, a loss of $104 million.

“This is not a small number. We’re not talking about a million dollars. This is 104, almost $105 million in lost tolls,” said PA Sen. Wayne Langerholc, the committee chair.

“One hundred million dollars is just unacceptable – no matter if your collection rate is 98 percent – that’s still a significant number to the taxpayers,” added PA Sen. Marty Flynn, a Scranton Democrat.

Turnpike officials defended their automated system.

“ADT allows us to be a more modern system. It allows us to move away from the choke points that are the toll plazas. It allows us to invest back in the roadway,” said Craig Shuey, the chief operating officer for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

Senators griped that Ohio and New Jersey residents were using the turnpike for free, and PA Sen. Elder Vogel, a Beaver County Republican, questioned why there are no tolls at the Ohio border westbound.

Vogel: Why do you quit tolling the turnpike at Cranberry, and let them drive 32 miles of free turnpike?

Shuey: Honestly, I don’t know.

Turnpike officials said they would look into placing a tollbooth near the Ohio border.

But when officials said they were also looking to operate the proposed bridge replacement tolls for PennDOT on I-79 and other highways, PA Sen. Devlin Robinson of Bridgeville was skeptical.

“Do you feel with this $104 million deficit that the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is ready to toll up to a million more drivers a day throughout the Commonwealth?” Robinson said. “Why are we putting these new toll bridges throughout Pennsylvania and not at the borders to capture out-of-state residents?”

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Turnpike officials said they had no role in PennDOT’s choice of nine bridges to toll.

Despite the loss of millions, turnpike officials say they collect 93 percent of all turnpike fees.

Part of the toll-by-mail problem — a $17 million loss — comes from license plates that are obstructed or too hard to read by the automated devices.

“One thing that can help is that if plates are legible. If you drive around the Commonwealth, you can see plates are starting to fade and there are some issues there,” Shuey said.

Vogel told officials he has a suggestion.

“You see a minivan with five bicycles on the back and, obviously, you can’t read the license plate, which begs the question: Would it be worth our while to put a front license plate on our car?” the Beaver County Republican asked.

Dr. Melissa Walden of Texas A&M University, who wrote a study on this issue, said 30 states have double plates because it enhances law enforcement and toll collection.

“It gives the cameras or the scanning technology a better chance of getting the plate correct,” Walden told KDKA money editor Jon Delano.

Walden said the cost of a second plate is “negligible,” but some say it interferes with the look of the front of the car.

Turnpike officials said they would work with PennDOT to research the idea of double plates.

“We’d be open to – we’ll work with you … to put together some numbers as to what that cost would be and with PennDOT,” said Mark Compton, chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

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So far, this idea has not advanced beyond the talking stage.