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Free Rides Are Expensive at Pennsylvania Toll Freeway | News, Sports, Jobs

By on September 15, 2021 0

CARLISLE – More than $ 104 million in Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls were not collected last year as the agency fully converted to fully electronic tolling, the millions of motorists who do not use E- ZPass having almost a one in two chance of driving without paying less “toll by plate” license plate camera system.

An internal toll report released in July and obtained by The Associated Press as part of a right-to-know request showed that nearly 11 million out of a total of about 170 million toll trips had generated no income for the agency in the year ending May 31.

“We take this issue very seriously. It is a large number, there is no doubt. Toll highway general manager Mark Compton said. “But we, as an organization, are leaving no stone unturned in how we tackle this leak.”

Toll revenue “leak” – an industry euphemism for uncollected tolls – has become the focus of toll agencies across the country as the use of E-ZPass transponders and license plate cameras continues to expand .

This is a particular problem for the debt-strapped Pennsylvania toll highway, where more than half of its total income goes to pay borrowing costs and the tolls have more than quadrupled in 12 years for the minority. motorists who do not have to pay for EZ Pass. mounted.

At gas pumps at a busy truck stop along the toll highway in Carlisle last week, driver Corin Bryant said he noticed that tolls had become much more expensive in recent years and that he didn’t like the idea of ​​stowaways very much.

“We should all pay for it or not” says Bryant, of Picayune, Mississippi. “Either.”

The toll highway, billed as the country’s first highway when a predominantly four-lane segment opened in 1940, is a key part of the interstate highway system. The toll highway runs over 500 miles, including several sections that connect to a main stem connecting the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas.

Last year, license plates could not be identified in 1.8 million trips on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, invoices were not remitted in just over a million cases and the agencies of Motor vehicles did not provide the addresses of vehicle owners over 1.5 million times. 6.7 million more transactions were marked as “outstanding payment.”

“I’m a little shocked by that” said Rebecca Oyler of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, representing truckers who primarily use E-ZPass. “If you think about it, they are controlling the driver. Theoretically, they could prevent the driver from leaving before paying; it is in their capacity to do.

After the tolls and fees are not collected for about three years, the toll highway cancels them.

State House Loans Chairman Stan Saylor, a York County Republican, has said the loss of income has been a concern for him for years and believes the new numbers show the need for action. He said the legislature should do more to pressure the agency to correct the problem and that the money could fund a lot of work.

“This kind of loss is incredible” said Saylor. “I’m sorry, when you have debt and the tolls are as high as they are on the Pennsylvania toll highway, then you have to be more efficient.”

There are several reasons why state toll agencies experience revenue leakage, said Mark Muriello of the International Bridge, Toll and Tunnel Association, a trade group.

This can be the result of faulty equipment, such as a dead battery in an E-ZPass transponder; the failure of camera systems to correctly capture a plate number; or an inability to prosecute drivers out of state, he said.

The sprawling 552-mile toll highway system recorded 169 million transactions last year, with the lion’s share of around 145 million going through E-ZPass. The E-ZPass system has helped the toll highway collect tolls on about 93% of all trips.

The plate toll was successful 13.3 million times last year, grossing over $ 127 million in fees. Law-abiding drivers have seen the cash or toll-per-plate costs for an interstate toll freeway ride climb from about $ 28 in 2009 to $ 95 this year. E-ZPass is much cheaper, currently $ 47 for cross-state travel.

After a pandemic-motivated decision to fire hundreds of toll chargers and auditors last year and end cash collections, the toll highway has issued a 45% rate hike this year for drivers who do not have an E-ZPass and need to be charged instead.

Instead of toll collectors are license plate cameras and contractor employees who must review photos of vehicles when the system has not automatically generated an owner’s name and address so that they can be identified. ‘a paper invoice is sent by post.

The July toll highway report indicated that in almost half of the cases where the license plate camera images were not usable, the reason was that the plate was not in the photo frame. Examples provided in the report included the lack of front license plates, which are not issued in Pennsylvania.

About 41% of image failures were attributed to an obstacle such as a bicycle rack. In about 1.1% of manually canceled images, the issue was attributed to intentional license plate obstruction.

The International Association of Bridges, Tolls and Tunnels, in establishing a task force on the subject earlier this year, said lost revenue may result from camera issues, equipment failure, unreliable information. from state motor vehicle agencies, inefficient collection practices and “customer behavior.”

Toll evaders across the country have been getting creative, using grease to mask license plate numbers and installing devices that deploy to cover license plates as drivers walk past license plate cameras. Weather conditions and camera malfunctions can also make the plates impossible to read.

Under a 2017 state law, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission went through PennDOT to suspend vehicle registrations in Pennsylvania and, as a result, approximately 10,000 are currently suspended. These drivers have had at least six unpaid toll violations, or at least $ 500 in toll violations, or have defaulted on a payment plan for unpaid tolls or charges.

The toll highway is also asking county prosecutors to sue service theft charges for those who owe at least $ 2,000 and, since 2002, has referred overdue payments to debt collectors for drivers in Pennsylvania and beyond. of the.

Out-of-state drivers are a particular problem. The toll highway obtains vehicle registration addresses from Pennsylvania and 48 other states – only Iowa does not provide them – but so far no agreement allows them to currently suspend registrations outside of the State for unpaid toll invoices.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike is finalizing such an agreement with Delaware and is in talks with New York.

Secretary of State for Transport Yassmin Gramian, who chairs the toll board, said the state’s overall toll collection rates are consistent with other states and slightly above the national average.

Gramian said the Toll Highway Commission wants more power to tackle out-of-state tolls, but that requires legislation in those states. Another issue is the variation among states on penalties and the fees they impose on toll drivers, said Compton, general manager of toll booth.

“Uniformity at the federal level would certainly be helpful in this area, and inter-state reciprocity is an ongoing conversation between toll agencies nationwide,” Gramian said.

Proponents of fully electronic tolls claim that it improves traffic flow, reduces pollution and requires less maintenance than manned toll plazas that accept cash. The 2020 layoffs reduced the toll highway workforce from nearly 1,900 to over 1,300 today. Total toll revenues were around $ 1.3 billion last year, with E-ZPass accounting for over $ 1 billion.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike approved a $ 45 million contract in 2014 to develop and implement fully electronic tolling, and it currently pays vendor TransCore about $ 10 million per year to operate the plate toll system.

It is also spending $ 129 million to move toll points to overhead gantry structures on the highway rather than the brick-and-mortar facilities currently at interchanges, a project under design and engineering.

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