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Toll trolls cheat Pa., Fla.

January 2, 2007

Part of my journey home to western Pennsylvania each holiday season always involves a trip up the Pennsylvania Turnpike (Interstate 76, for you mapping at home) and up the Beaver Valley Expressway (Pa. Route 60) — both involve forced “donations” to the state in the form of road tolls.

Old Pa. tollbooth (courtesy of Univ. of Vermont)Though, in recent years, that nuisance has been easier to bear, thanks to the E-Z Pass system that magically takes my money without the inconvenience of opening my wallet or window.

Poynter’s Al Tompkins points out that toll “cheatery” is on the rise in some states, including Pennsylvania. That hurts the general road budget of these states’ departments of transportation, which rely on those tolls to fund minor road repairs.

The Tampa Tribune reports that Florida is losing $20 to $25 million in lost tolls on its turnpike. The chief culprit is those electronic E-Z Pass-style toll lanes (called “SunPass” in Fla.) which have no human safeguard.

From the story:

In 2006, tollbooth violations on Florida’s turnpike system cost the state $20 million to $25 million in lost revenue, twice as much as was lost two years ago.

That sharp increase has troopers stepping up efforts to catch tollbooth cheaters, who could end up with a court date and more than $100 in fines – far more than the toll they tried to avoid.

Turnpike officials say violations are up because more SunPass lanes and electronic monitoring of tollbooths make it easier for people to slide through without paying.

“It gives toll evaders more excuses to not pay the toll,” said Joanne Hurley, community relations coordinator for Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise.

Same story in Pennsylvania. A Pittsburgh Tribune-Review story from March 2006 shows that almost 1 in 50 drivers is cheating the Pa. system.  But Pa. is profiting from toll-enforcement efforts, according to the article:

Every minute on the Pennsylvania Turnpike a driver passes through a toll booth without paying – and the state cashes in.

More than 787,000 motorists drove through turnpike toll booths in 2005 without paying $2.3 million in tolls, but the state recouped more than $9.5 million in tolls, fines and fees, according to Turnpike Commission data obtained by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Taking out the $3 million it costs to operate the E-ZPass violations center, the commission came out about $4.2 million in the black.

The worst problems exist on the turnpike’s three expansion highways in Western Pennsylvania — the Route 66 Amos K. Hutchinson Bypass near Greensburg, Route 60 James E. Ross Highway in Beaver and Lawrence counties, and the Route 43 Mon-Fayette Expressway in Fayette and Washington counties.

Nearly 2 percent of drivers on those basket-collection roads don’t pay the toll — more than seven times the rate of toll cheating on the rest of the turnpike. At one Mon-Fayette toll booth near Rubels Mill, Fayette County, slightly more than half of all motorists skip the toll.

The state does catch about 80 percent of E-Z Pass violators thanks to camera systems, according to the article.

Also, cracking down on cheaters is big business in other states like Illinois, the article continues:

Other states have cracked down on toll cheaters, including Illinois, where officials faced a two-year backlog of violators and hired a private company to handle the job …

Illinois adopted a stricter policy on toll cheaters in 2003, issuing a fine after three violations. Last year the state collected $16.7 million from violators, a small fraction of its $600 million in revenues.

Toll cheating dates back decades to highways that relied only on change baskets, said Neil Gray, director of government affairs for the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, based in Washington, D.C. Gray’s heard incredible stories of people trying to avoid paying tolls.

“There’s the one where someone was seen hanging out of the trunk of a car with a piece of cardboard over the license plate,” he said. “People have done some really silly things to avoid a toll.”

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