HARRISBURG - Auditor General Jack Wagner wants the debt-ridden Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to put the brakes on free rides for more than 7,000 employees and contractors.
Toll-free rides by turnpike personnel have cost the taxpayers $7.7 million over about five years, Wagner said Monday, and at a time when the turnpike is about to raise tolls to address its multibillion debt.
He said his draft audit for the period beginning in January 2007 and ending in August 2011 contains only an estimate of costs because the agency did not provide a breakdown of data into personal or business travel.
Wagner, who plans to issue a full audit on the commission this month, said 2,132 turnpike employees have photo ID badges that enabled them to use the turnpike for free and an additional 650 had special EZ-Pass transponders.
In addition 3,828 consultants and contractors were given nonemployee ID cards that allowed them to travel the toll road for free.
Roughly 1,000 other transponders were provided to law enforcement officials, including the security details for the governor and lieutenant governor and emergency responders.
Wagner told reporters at a news conference that he takes no issue with employees having legitimate turnpike access on their commute to work or emergency workers responding to accidents. He was disturbed, however, at the volume of turnpike giveaways at a time when the agency is more than $7 billion in debt and obligated to pay PennDot and mass transit systems some $450 million a year.
Wagner said he was not suggesting transponders or IDs were used inappropriately, but because of poor record keeping by the commission, he said neither could he rule out they were used appropriately.
"There has to be far greater oversight of free travel on turnpike," said Wagner, citing a 2010 scandal that led to the resignation of a Delaware River Port Authority official who gave an EZ-Pass to his daughter.
"We don't want to see that happen," he said.
Bill Capone, a turnpike spokesman, said officials only received the report Monday and were reviewing it, but added that they have been reviewing what if anything should be done differently.
Capone said employees have been granted free access to the turnpike for decades with the stipulation that they are expected to provide assistance to drivers or call in debris on roadway.
"For that reason, the more eyes and ears out there, it ultimately benefits our customer," he said. "If they had to pay a toll I don't know if everyone would take the turnpike."
New Jersey Gov. Christie is seeking to ban free trips for workers at the Delaware River Port Authority, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, and other agencies, a move unionized workers have vowed to fight.