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Pennsylvania House panel supports stronger penalties against turnpike toll violators

The House Transportation Committee voted unanimously Monday in favor of a bill that increases penalties against toll violators on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

House Bill 1922 would lower the threshold for when the state can suspend a vehicle’s registration down from $500 in unpaid tolls to $250. The statute of limitations on the crime would also increase from three years to five years.

While such a measure won’t recapture the entirety of the $104 million in unpaid tolls owed to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, prime co-sponsor Minority Chairman Mike Carroll, D-Hughestown, said it’s a “direct response” to the problem.

“This is a step that we can take affirmatively to try and get the attention of those that might be scofflaws to pay up,” he said Monday “It is a modest step that I think will make a difference … [but] it’s not going to be the full solution to the $100 million problem.”

About one-third of the unpaid tolls come from out-of-state drivers, Commission CEO Mark Compton told lawmakers last month. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) lacks enforcement capability in these instances, he said, and the state police rarely prosecute such crimes.

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.

Compton confirmed that the free rides come from the 14% of drivers who use the “toll-by-plate” system implemented after the commission laid off 500 fare collectors last year.

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 told the Senate Transportation Committee during a September hearing. “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% 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.

HB 1922 now moves to the full House for consideration.

This article was originally posted on Pennsylvania House panel supports stronger penalties against turnpike toll violators