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Reckoning could be coming for PA's toll deadbeats

E-ZPass is gradually replacing traditional toll booths. There are E-ZPass lanes with equipment that can scan an E-ZPass placard without the driver slowing down. The Pennsylvania Turnpike recently opened a new tolling point at the New Jersey border that is entirely electronic. Anyone without E-ZPass who goes through gets billed after their license plate is photographed. The ability to move people through tolling points more quickly and easily, though, comes with a price. It's easier to blast through tolls without paying, and if a person is determined to avoid a toll in Pennsylvania, they probably can get away with it.

It's a long way from becoming law, but a newly proposed legislation promises to create, for the first time, penalties for habitual toll evaders.

"Realistically it's the threat of a hammer that will likely get people to pay," said Rep. Kate Harper, (R., Montgomery) who wrote the bill. "People have to know that there's a problem if you don't pay your toll."

The bill allows Pennsylvania's Department of Transportation to suspend the registration of a driver who had six unpaid toll violations on the Turnpike, or more than $500 in fines over three years. The bill was prompted by the Pennsylvania Turnpike reporting in May, the end of its fiscal year, $33.5 million in unpaid E-ZPass tolls.

"I was like, 'wow!'" Harper said. "I thought, was that over 10 years?  Was that over one year?"

That $33.5 million number is a little misleading, said Carl Defebo Jr., spokesman for the Turnpike Authority. About $31 million of that ends up being paid. Most people do end up paying their fees and fines, he said. But the authority did write off $3.5 million in unpaid fees last year, he said.

Surprisingly, at present the Turnpike Authority's ability to punish people who won't pay fines is limited, said Carl Defebo Jr., spokesman for the authority. The agency does issue two violation notices with escalating fees, and eventually refers the unpaid fines to a collections agency, but if a driver hasn't paid the debt within 20 months of the violation, the collections agency lets the matter go. Ignoring the fines doesn't even negatively affect a person's credit.

"Right now there's just no consequence," he said.

Other states already have penalties for toll evaders, he said, including some that put the scofflaws in jail. Tolls pay for the vast majority of the turnpike's operating expenses and and capital plan. Tolls bring the authority about $840 million annually, with about $700 million of that from E-ZPass.

Harper said her bill creates consequences without penalizing people who accidentally run through tolls.

The bill requires the tolling entity to give the violator a notification that its going to move to suspend the person's registration, and that the registration will stay suspended until the violations are addressed in some way, either by being paid, dismissed, reversed, appealed or cancelled.

Defebo noted violators, who he said constitute less than 1 percent of motorists on the Turnpike, are given ample opportunity to settle with the Turnpike Authority. A person who drove through an E-ZPass lane by mistake can even avoid paying any penalties if that driver still has the turnpike ticket.

"The repeat offenders are people who are purposely avoiding tolls," he said.

The bill, if it moves forward, will be first debated in the House Transportation Committee.

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