HARRISBURG -- The Pennsylvania Turnpike is having problems collecting tolls, mainly from drivers who cheat the system by going through E-ZPass when they aren't subscribers to it.
Newswatch 16 obtained records that show the turnpike is out tens of millions of dollars because of cheaters.
In response, the state auditor general announced Tuesday that he will start an audit to review why the turnpike has trouble collecting all this money.
Documents obtained by Newswatch 16 show unpaid tolls tripled from almost $11 million in 2010 to more than $33 million this year.
All those drivers not paying the toll is taking a toll on the roads. That $33 million lost this year is enough to pave about 300 miles of the four-lane turnpike. That's about the distance from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.
Newswatch 16 Investigates also discovered the laws on Pennsylvania’s books limit it in what it can do to crack down on toll cheats, especially compared to other states.
Maryland, for instance, will suspend the license of habitual toll cheats. New Jersey will put a driver's name on a public list if that driver racks up enough violations.
But that's not the case here in Pennsylvania. The state usually just hires a collection agency to try to get the lost money.
“A lot of states do have some kind of toll enforcement,” said Carl Defabo of the state turnpike commission.
He was surprised himself after we showed him the amount of violation money owed to it.
“Tolls are our main -- our only -- source of revenue. In fact, so you know, it's unfair to our customers if people don't pay their toll violations,” he said.
Defebo wants lawmakers to allow the turnpike to be more aggressive in going after toll cheats. So Newswatch 16 Investigates met with state representative Mike Carroll, who sits on the state transportation subcommittee. We also showed him what we discovered. Now, he's looking into harsher penalties for toll cheats, like preventing some from registering their vehicles.
"It's an issue of fairness. And so any unpaid tolls should be collected,” said Rep. Carroll.
Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission Chairman Sean Logan issued the following statement in response to an announcement made by the auditor general regarding an upcoming audit of the commission.
“The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC) welcomes the review by Auditor General DePasquale during this quadrennial performance audit. This audit — which has occurred for nearly two decades — is an important check and balance that confirms the job we do in managing our business practices and lets customers know their toll dollars are being spent wisely. It is just one of several independent and internal audits — both statutory and voluntary — performed on our finances and operations each year.
“Today, the PTC is operating more like a business, and we value any opportunity that could lead to improvements in our business operations. As we have done in years past, I pledge our full support and cooperation with the auditor general’s office throughout the process. We remain confident that our financial operations continue to serve customers and the commonwealth well. Our track record shows that we are good stewards of customers’ toll dollars.
“We are continually looking for ways to improve and streamline operations and to boost transparency, and we look forward to working with the auditor general for those reasons.
“Furthermore, we take very seriously the issue of E-ZPass violations. Plain and simple, those who intentionally evade tolls are crooks. We aggressively pursue toll violators because such behavior is unfair to the more than 99 percent of honest drivers who do pay their tolls.
“While it is true that the total value of unpaid E-ZPass violations on the PA Turnpike was $33.3 million as of May 31, the end of our fiscal year, the commission, in that same timeframe, received more than $31 million back from law-abiding individuals who paid their E-ZPass violations.
“As we have in the past, the PA Turnpike Commission would welcome a dialogue on the subject of more serious consequences for toll evaders. In the meantime, I pledge that we will continue to do all we are empowered to do to insist everyone pays what’s owed.”