When ev­ery cent counts, turn­pike tough on scofflaws

The Times Herald (Norristown, PA) - - OPINION -

What would you do with an ex­tra $17.1 mil­lion?

Cer­tainly, pub­lic school of­fi­cials, hu­man-ser­vice providers and county and lo­cal gov­ern­ments could find plenty to do with that chunk of change, which is how much more than 10,000 of the worst scofflaws owed in un­paid tolls to the Penn­syl­va­nia Turn­pike Com­mis­sion as of June 2017.

As The Wall Street Jour­nal re­ported over the week­end, the high­way agency is team­ing with county dis­trict at­tor­neys to file crim­i­nal theft of ser­vice charges against those who owe more than $2,000 in un­paid tolls.

So far, the Turn­pike Com­mis­sion has filed 13 crim­i­nal com­plaints, with a judge ap­prov­ing a pay­ment plan in one case. The other 11 are pend­ing, the news­pa­per re­ported.

While other states do crack the whip on scofflaws, the turn­pike is “clearly step­ping up the game,” Neil Gray, the gov­ern­ment af­fairs di­rec­tor at the In­ter­na­tional Bridge, Tun­nel and Turn­pike As­so­ci­a­tion, a trade group, told the Jour­nal. “I haven’t heard of any­one go­ing to this level be­fore.”

There’s a bit of “turn­pike, heal thy­self,” to the news that the tolling agency, long de­rided as a pa­tron­age dump­ing ground, and once the sub­ject of a crim­i­nal pay-to-play pros­e­cu­tion by for­mer At­tor­ney Gen­eral Kath­leen Kane, has taken a hard line with al­leged law-break­ers.

But the num­bers speak for them­selves.

As The Jour­nal re­port notes, “The state’s top 100 toll evaders each have more than $21,000 in un­paid tolls and fees.

One driver is ac­cused of rack­ing up more than $90,000 in debts since 2012, mostly in snow­balling fees, by us­ing an E-ZPass-only lane more than 1,600 times with­out a valid transpon­der, ac­cord­ing to a crim­i­nal com­plaint.”

The worst of­fend­ers are in the Philadel­phia sub­urbs, ac­cord­ing to data com­piled by The Philadel­phia Voice.

The move comes as the turn­pike tran­si­tions away from old­fash­ioned, pa­per ticket toll-tak­ers to the cash­less lanes that use over­head de­vices to scan driv­ers’ E-ZPass transpon­ders.

For cars who zip through the cash­less lanes with­out such a de­vice, the agency takes a photo of the car’s li­cense plate. The of­fend­ing mo­torist can pay through the mail or on­line.

As The Jour­nal notes, the com­mis­sion had, for years, only “min­i­mal power” to go af­ter toll-dodgers. It could only send vi­o­la­tion no­tices and turn ac­counts over to col­lec­tion agen­cies. Last year, state law was changed to au­tho­rize the turn­pike to sus­pend the reg­is­tra­tion for un­paid toll debt.

Af­ter re­view­ing state law, the com­mis­sion also con­cluded it could use the courts to go af­ter the worst of­fend­ers.

True, the $17.1 mil­lion is a drop in the bucket com­pared to the $1.1 bil­lion in over­all toll rev­enue col­lected by the com­mis­sion, The Jour­nal re­ported.

But the crack­down comes as the Turn­pike Com­mis­sion wres­tles with the bal­loon­ing debt caused by state laws passed in 2007 and 2013 that were in­tended to help cover the cost of road and bridge re­pairs across the state.

The agency is also try­ing to pay for more than $5.77 bil­lion in turn­pike re­pairs and re­con­struc­tion over 10 years.

To cover all those costs, the com­mis­sion voted to raise tolls for the ninth straight year last year.

Here are some ex­am­ples of those in­creases (E-ZPass and cash) from those new rates:

Har­ris­burg West Shore to Read­ing: $3.89 / $5.70

Carlisle to Wilkes Barre: $18.12 / $25.50

Get­tys­burg Pike to Pitts­burgh: $18.12 / $25.50

Har­ris­burg East to Val­ley Forge: $7.76 / $11.10

With the com­mis­sion ask­ing more from mo­torists who pay the tolls, it’s only right for the com­mis­sion go af­ter scofflaws.

And with tolls set to in­crease an­nu­ally un­til 2044, ev­ery penny counts.

— Pennlive.com, The As­so­ci­ated Press

There’s a bit of “turn­pike, heal thy­self,” to the news that the tolling agency, long de­rided as a pa­tron­age dump­ing ground, has taken a hard line with al­leged law­break­ers.

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