FILE - Pennsylvania Turnpike

The Pennsylvania Turnpike

(The Center Square) – The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission said Wednesday it has assigned “a lot of firepower” to the task of recovering $104.9 million in uncollected tolls.

PTC CEO Mark Compton told the Senate Transportation Committee that the toll “leakage” – an industry term referring to uncollected fares – comes as a result of the state’s toll-by-plate system that ramped up after the commission laid off 500 fare collectors in June 2020, nearly two years ahead of schedule.

“There is a huge mix of traffic, there are folks that don’t understand what we require of them, and there’s a lot of folks that are just trying to avoid to paying tolls,” he said.

Leakage in 2016 totaled about $40 million. Compton said compounding late fees and the agency’s limitations on chasing down delinquent accounts more than doubled the amount owed as of 2021.

Still, it’s about what the commission says it expected from the toll-by-plate system. About 14% of turnpike fares are collected this way, with the rest paying through EZ pass.

An internal report published in July and obtained by The Associated Press shows 11 million turnpike rides generated no revenue for the commission in the year ending May 31.

About 4.3 million of those uncharged trips were chocked up to unreadable license plates, undeliverable addresses, or missing driver information. The rest were simply marked “unpaid,” according the AP.

“This is not a small number,” said Republican Chairman Wayne Langerholc Jr., R-Clearfield. "This is over $100 million in lost tolls. That should have been a red flag for your department.”

Compton defended the commission’s handling of the issue, telling the committee that it has mentioned the leakage in multiple public hearings and pursued delinquent accounts to the best of their ability. Drivers with more than $500 in uncollected fares in a three-year period face registration suspension, while those with bills exceeding $2,000 could face criminal prosecution.

“Yes, it’s a big number,” he said. “Yes, it’s a number we continue to attack. We keep using the tools in our tool box to fight back. We look forward to working with the General Assembly to improve it.”

The commission said despite risk of felony prosecution for avoiding tolls, the state police rarely pursue such cases. The commission also lacks authority to track down delinquent payers or suspend vehicle registrations from other states, too, which represent more than one-third of the uncollected fares.

“What would help is … enforcing the law that doesn’t allow you to cover your plate with a shade that serves no other purpose than to avoid tolls or avoiding law enforcement eyes,” Compton said.

About 1% of the 1.8 million unidentified plates are "intentionally obscured," according to the commission's own analysis. Passing legislation to make license plates more visible – such as placement on the front of vehicles – would help reduce fraud and other accidental instances of obfuscation, Compton added.

“We’ve dealt with people with unique approaches to cheating the toll system for 80 years … fraud is unfortunately a part of life,” he said. “We don’t have arrest powers, so we can’t arrest anybody for doing the things that sort of fall into that category.”

The 552-mile turnpike generated $1.3 billion in toll revenues last year. This, after ridership plummeted 23.4% last year amid pandemic restrictions on travel. 

An analysis from the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy estimates traffic won’t rebound to pre-pandemic levels until 2025. The grim picture forced the commission to tighten its budget through reductions in capital expenditures, implementing a hiring freeze, delaying its quarterly payment to PennDOT and laying off nearly 500 fare collectors.

Drivers can expect toll increases through 2050, officials said in July, albeit at a slower rate than experienced over the past 15 years. A cross-state trip on the roadway costs $95, up from $28 in 2009, according to the AP.

Staff Reporter

Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania's General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.