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 old-fashioned, 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.