Time to pay up. Here's how the PA Turnpike is working to collect millions in unpaid tolls

Teresa Boeckel
York Daily Record

It's been two years since the Pennsylvania Turnpike dropped its toll takers, and millions of dollars are going uncollected.

State Auditor General Timothy DeFoor noted the rising uncollected tolls in a recent performance audit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. The inspection also highlighted other challenges, including that the Turnpike has more debt than the state government of Pennsylvania and "the only way to pay it is to raise tolls," according to a news release.

DeFoor called on the state Legislature and the commission to work together to ensure the Turnpike is viable into the future.

Tolls remain uncollected for a variety of reasons: invoices go unpaid, license plates are unidentifiable and PennDOT has an incorrect address or none at all, the release states. The audit found that $104 million remains as uncollected revenue for fiscal years 2020 and 2021. It has made recommendations for improving collections.

"Most customers do the right thing and pay what's due," said Carl DeFebo, a spokesman for the Turnpike. "... as a matter of both fairness and sound fiscal management, we do everything in our power to collect from everyone."

The percentage of unpaid transactions is 6 to 7 percent, which is what the commission monitors as it collects revenue, he said. The dollar amount owed continues to rise because of the toll hikes and increasing traffic volume.

The Turnpike has a working group that has been focused on the challenge of collecting the outstanding tolls, DeFebo said.

Here's a look at what is happening:

Why is the uncollected Pennsylvania Turnpike toll problem growing worse?

During a recent news conference, DeFoor said that unpaid tolls, also referred to as "leakage," are a significant problem for the Turnpike, especially given the financial challenges it faces.

Drivers can be billed through E-ZPass or through the mail after a camera records their license plate − known as toll-by-plate.

The majority of the Turnpike's transactions − 86.8 percent − is paid through E-ZPass, according to a July report by the Turnpike. Toll-by-plate payments account for nearly 7 percent, and the balance remains uncollected.

Toll revenues are used to pay debt service for money, capital expenditures and operating costs, DeFebo said.

Signs on the electronic toll booths indicate to motorists entering the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Gibsonia, Pa., to keep moving and the methods being used to collect tolls.

DeFoor said the toll leakage grew worse when the Turnpike moved to the toll-by-plate method. It started as a pilot program in 2016 and expanded when the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020. The Turnpike stopped using toll takers to collect the payments at the booth as drivers exited the highway.

"Travelers without E-ZPass thought they were traveling for free because they didn't understand toll-by-plate," he said.

In total, $104 million is still owed for fiscal years 2020 and 2021, DeFoor said.

In addition, he said, about a quarter of unpaid bills exist because the state Department of Transportation has the wrong address − or no address at all − for the current vehicle owner.

The estimated total of unbillable and uncollectable tolls stands at $161 million from June 2021 to May 2022, according to the July report. The paid transactions are expected to total $1.5 billion.

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What happens to drivers who do not pay the tolls?

The Turnpike uses several methods to recoup unpaid tolls: debt-collection agencies, vehicle registration suspension and legal action.

Legislators are considering a bill that would lower the threshold for vehicle-registration suspensions before the owner's ability to pay the outstanding tolls gets out of control, DeFebo said.

It's tougher to collect from an owner when the unpaid tolls exceed $500 or the outstanding invoices total six, he said.

Under the proposed bill, the threshold would drop from $500 to $250 in unpaid tolls and from six to four for the number of unpaid toll-by-plate invoices. It also would extend the statute of limitations for outstanding invoices from three to five years.

If signed into law, the Turnpike estimates that 25,000 additional vehicle registrations would qualify for suspension because of unpaid toll invoices. If paid, that could bring in $18 million more in tolls and fees.

The bill passed the state House in May. It is under consideration in the state Senate.

What about out-of-state drivers who aren't paying?

The Turnpike Commission is continuing to work with neighboring toll agencies on reciprocity agreements that would provide legal authority to pursue vehicle owners in other states for payments, DeFebo said.

The efforts have been underway for years, but the states have widely varying civil and criminal laws on toll evasion, he said. Some states do not have any legislation in effect.

What are the recommendations for collecting outstanding tolls?

The auditor general office's audit made 11 recommendations to the Turnpike Commission for trying to collect these outstanding payments.

They include working with other states to collect payments from out-of-state drivers, continuing efforts with PennDOT to determine why addresses are not available, and working with the General Assembly to reduce the threshold for vehicle registration suspensions for unpaid tolls.

Some of the other recommendations are:

  • Continuing to research and offer different payment methods to customers.
  • Having state police increase its patrol work, including ticketing drivers who have an obstructed or unreadable license plate.
  • Requesting that PennDOT develop a plan to replace unreadable license plates.
  • Working with the General Assembly to allow the Turnpike to use other resources besides the Department of Motor Vehicles to obtain addresses for drivers.
  • Working with the General Assembly on other ways to collect outstanding tolls, such as from lottery winnings or state tax refunds.

Mark Compton, chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, responded to DeFoor with a letter to address the concerns raised by the audit. As for the unpaid tolls, he noted that most drivers prefer electronic payments. For those who do not, the Turnpike has expanded ways to make it easier for customers to pay their tolls.

"And for those who are not compelled to pay invoices in this environment, we are actively engaged with the Legislature, the PA State Police and surrounding toll agencies to ensure we are taking all measures possible to collect," Compton wrote in the letter.

How much toll 'leakage' is normal?

No singular percentage or industry standard exists for collections, according to the International Bridge, Tunnel & Turnpike Association. That's because operating conditions and collection performance can vary significantly with each program.

Toll "leakage" with an all-electronic system is a "cost of doing business," which is different from a loss, the association says. It's not realistic to think that agencies will collect 100 percent of the transactions.

"Toll agencies set prices (i.e., toll rates, fees, penalties) to offset unpaid tolls, just as the cost of goods we buy in retail stores is set to cover losses," the association said in an email.

And some of that leakage exists because of unreadable license plates and unavailable addresses for vehicle owners. It's not just drivers who are not paying the tolls.

Still, those who pay their tolls deserve the best efforts to pursue the uncollected ones, according to the association.

The association created a Lost Revenue Task Force in 2021, and it is sharing industry best practices and resources to help toll operators optimize their approach into capturing uncollected revenue, it says.

New ways to pay Pa. Turnpike tolls

The Turnpike says it's making it easier for customers to pay their tolls whether it be through the mail, online, in-person, the PA Toll Pay App or a retail store, DeFebo said.

It has partnered with KUBRA Cash Payment Network to allow customers to pay their toll-by-plate invoices or add more money to their E-ZPass accounts. It includes a $1.50 service fee.

Some of the participating retailers include Rutter's, CVS and Dollar General.

Drivers also can save money on their tolls by pre-registering for a toll-by-plate account or using E-ZPass.

How can I find out if I owe tolls?

Vehicle owners who think they might have unpaid tolls can check online at www.ezpass.csc.paturnpike.com.

They will need to enter information, including the vehicle license plate number, to see if unpaid invoices exist.

To make a payment on any outstanding balances, call the Pennsylvania Turnpike Customer Service Center at 1-877-736-6727. When prompted, select option 1 and then option 5 to resolve the amounts owed.