HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — This data doesn’t go back forever, but the $155 million in unpaid tolls for the Pennsylvania’s most recent fiscal year — June 2022 through May 2021 — is almost certainly a record.
So a record number of dishonest Pennsylvanians?
“The dollar amount did increase from $105 million [for June 2020 through May 2021] to $155 million,” confirmed Rosanne Placey, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.
But she said the percentage of people who didn’t pay their tolls held steady at about 6% to 7%.
“So if you were to flip that, you would say that we have a 93 percent collection rate, and that’s on par with our peers in the tolling industry” such as other states’ turnpikes, Placey said.
The increase in the dollar amount of uncollected tolls, she said, was almost entirely due to more people driving (Turnpike use has rebounded since being down 60% at the pandemic’s nadir) and higher tolls. In other words, the more people who drive — and the more they’re supposed to pay — the higher the dollar amount of uncollected tolls, if the percentage of scofflaws remains constant.
Which is not to say — Placey said — the commission is okay with six or seven out of every 100 motorists helping themselves to free rides on the toll road.
“If you’re on the turnpike, you must pay your tolls,” she said. “It’s a matter of equity. We want to be fair to all our customers.”
Enforcement “includes notifications, collection agencies and then we move into the suspension of motor vehicle registrations,” Placey said.
She said that last part would have become easier had legislation sponsored by State Rep. Ryan Warner (R-Fayette/Westmoreland) become law — suspensions could have been triggered after fewer violations for smaller dollar amounts than is currently the case.
The commission estimated an additional 25,000 vehicle registrations would qualify for suspension, and it could collect an additional $18 million in tolls and fees.
Alas, the bill languished.
Placey said the commission will continue pushing for tougher enforcement, and it also wants reciprocity agreements with other states. Tough as it is to get a serial Pennsylvania toll-evader to pay, it’s even tougher to shake the unpaid tolls out of one who lives in New Jersey or Ohio.
One thing the commission won’t do: put humans back in the toll booths that still adorn interchanges. Why not?
“The answer to that would be that in reality, we just couldn’t do that in the here and now,” Placey said “And most importantly, that’s not what our customers are indicating to us that they want.”
Customers want to keep moving, Placey said. And anyway, toll evasion isn’t new.
Staffed booths “wouldn’t mitigate this issue of leakage,” Placey said, using an industry term for uncollected tolls. “Even when we had folks at the interchanges, leakage occurred.”
The commission always planned to eliminate staffed tollbooths but — to minimize human contact — did so early in the pandemic, about 18 months earlier than it originally planned.
About seven out of eight drivers on the turnpike use E-Z Pay. Those people almost always pay. This issue is with about half of the rest.
Maybe cameras just aren’t properly capturing their license plates?
That happens, Placey said, but “that’s like less than 1 percent of the issue.”
Similarly, she said, sometimes the commission can’t get the correct mailing address for a driver, and sometimes other honest errors occur.
But the majority of non-payers are “what we refer to as ‘serial scofflaws,'” Placey said. “Those folks who weren’t necessarily confused about how to pay their tolls. They really are choosing not to pay their tolls.”