The Pennsylvania Turnpike (Douglas Muth/Flickr)
After more than $104 million in Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls went uncollected last year, a state senator says he’s come up with a way to prevent future losses.
“This number is unacceptable, and it demands a targeted approach to increase enforcement and penalties for those that consistently evade paying applicable tolls,” Sen. Marty Flynn, D-Lackawanna, wrote in a memo seeking support from colleagues earlier this month.
Flynn, a member of the 14-member Senate Transportation Committee, says he plans to introduce a package of bills to prevent future uncollected tolls, commonly referred to as “leakage.”
In three pieces of legislation, the Scranton lawmaker proposes increased penalties for drivers who do not pay their tolls, mandated finance reporting from the Turnpike Commission to the General Assembly, and reinstated staffing at Turnpike interchanges.
Since the Pennsylvania Turnpike converted to all-electronic tolling in June 2020, nearly 11 million out of almost 170 million rides through May generated no revenue for the Turnpike Commission, according to an internal report obtained by the Associated Press earlier this year.
“The attempt to streamline and modernize the collection of tolls through the shift to all-electronic tolling was made with good intentions,” Flynn wrote in the memo. “However, the Turnpike Commission has failed to sufficiently adapt existing enforcement mechanisms — along with a lack of new tools — to address the issue of unpaid tolls. We need to stop the bleeding and find solutions.”
Motorists who do not use E-ZPass — an automated collection system — have an almost 50-50 chance of slipping through the “toll-by-plate” camera billing system. With E-ZPass, the Turnpike collects on about 92 percent of trips. Revenue helps pay quarterly transit payments to the state Department of Transportation and the resulting debt service, which comes with a legislatively mandated funding obligation.
In September, Turnpike Commission Chief Executive Mark Compton and Chief Operating Officer Craig Shuey testified before the Senate panel to outline what causes leakage. They explained that drivers operating cars without a license plate or obstructions, such as a bike rack, pose challenges to the collection system. In other cases, the Turnpike cannot send a bill due to incorrect registration or address information on file. In total, 6.7 million bills were unpaid last year.
The Turnpike uses collection agencies and partnerships with the state Transportation Department and Office of the Attorney General to enforce fees.
If a driver fails to pay, a lawsuit could be the next step. But if a motorist has $500 or more in unpaid toll violations or invoices over three years, the Turnpike Commission can request to suspend their registration. This makes it easier to bill commercial drivers who utilize the more than 550-mile system.
Flynn’s proposal, a Senate companion to legislation in the House, would lower the threshold needed to trigger a registration suspension from six unpaid tolls to four — or from $500 to $250. It also proposes raising the statute of limitations from three to five years to give Turnpike officials more time to pursue offenders.
For added legislative oversight, Flynn’s legislation would require the Turnpike Commission to submit an annual financial report to the General Assembly that outlines revenue and leakage during the prior fiscal year. The document would resemble an internal report compiled by the commission each year, Flynn said.
The bill package would reinstate a limited number of staffed lanes, so motorists can pay fees in-person, including with cash.
“This methodology will help to restore payment options to Pennsylvania motorists, reestablish good-paying jobs to communities, and increase revenues from tolls,” Flynn wrote.
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