Turnpike needs to crack down

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is most to blame for the motorists who have been depriving the turnpike of millions of dollars in toll revenue each year.

The commission has had a history of not pursuing payment by scofflaws as aggressively as it should have felt obligated to do. It also was anemic in seeking tougher laws to discourage nonpayment of the road-use fee.

It’s currently estimated that unpaid tolls have been costing the turnpike approximately $17 million annually.

But the commission hasn’t been the only management culprit connected with the non-payment situation. The legislature and the governor’s office have the duty to oversee all aspects of state operations but for decades they too dropped the proverbial ball regarding a crackdown on toll scofflaws.

Meanwhile, neither the legislature nor the governor’s office has had the desire to revisit the requirement that the turnpike turn over millions of dollars of toll revenue each year to help fund state Department of Transportation operations — a requirement that was born during the failed effort years ago to make Interstate 80 a toll highway.

Those annual payments no doubt are a factor in the toll increases — at least the size of the increases — that the commission continues to impose annually.

Finally, last year, a state law went into effect allowing the commonwealth to suspend Pennsylvania vehicle registrations for unpaid turnpike tolls.

However, the law doesn’t cover registrations of out-of-state motorists who cheat the turnpike out of money that’s due.

A new collection tactic will address that shortcoming and, in the process, put additional pressure on Pennsylvania motorists who try to avoid paying tolls by, for example, using an E-ZPass-only lane without having a valid transponder.

The latest initiative involves filing criminal charges against motorists that the Turnpike Commission determines to be egregious scofflaws. As described in the April 7-8 edition of the Wall Street Journal, the new initiative involves enlisting local prosecutors to pursue theft-of-services criminal cases, which reach felony status when more than $2,000 is owed.

According to the Journal report, the news about possible criminal prosecution already is producing results; it has helped spur payments or payment plans involving more than $120,000.

Leading up to last weekend, 13 criminal complaints had been filed, the Journal reported.

Having begun using its new tools, the turnpike must guard against relaxing that aggressiveness.

The Journal article reported that Pennsylvania’s top 100 toll evaders each have racked up more than $21,000 in unpaid tolls and fees. One of those drivers was listed as owing upwards of $90,000 — a bill accumulated over the years since 2012.

The collection system upon which this state had for so long relied — sending out violation notices and, if ignored, simply turning the accounts over to collections — clearly was anemic in its results, should long ago have been acknowledged as such, and been replaced.

Finally that is happening.

Stores routinely post the message that shoplifters will be prosecuted. The Turnpike Commission should install signs or use its electronic message boards to warn motorists that they will be prosecuted or have their vehicle registrations suspended if they fail to pay what’s due.

The turnpike can’t be a free-ride highway any longer.