Blowing through E-ZPass lane, scofflaws cost road authorities millions

A toll worker gives a motorist a thumbs-up after waving a car past the ticket booth in Carlisle, Pa. (Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo)

A toll worker gives a motorist a thumbs-up after waving a car past the ticket booth in Carlisle, Pa. (Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo)

Trucker Javier Marte got creative earlier this year when he tried to duck a $126 toll in an EZ Pass lane. He is among scores of scammers who regard regional E-ZPass lanes as EZPlunder instead, transit officials say.

Most drivers looking to dodge a toll would get off the highway and stick to smaller free roads. But Javier Marte got creative earlier this year when he tried to duck a $126 toll: The Yonkers trucker used fishing line to flip his license plate out of view as he rumbled through an E-ZPass lane — and past its security camera — on March 9 in Fort Lee, N.J., police said. A sharp-eyed patrolman spotted the swindle, though, and Marte now stands charged with theft and other crimes.

Marte is among scores of scammers who regard regional E-ZPass lanes as E-ZPlunder instead, transit officials say.

Toll cheaters have cost area transit agencies millions of dollars:

Travelers on the Pennsylvania Turnpike racked up $42 million in unpaid tolls over the past year, spokesman Carl DeFebo said. That amount was staggering enough that the Pennsylvania Auditor General’s office decided in November to audit the turnpike commission, focusing on toll collection, the office’s spokeswoman Susan Woods said. Audit results are expected this fall.
Commuters crossing the Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Betsy Ross, and Commodore Barry bridges skipped $3.5 million in tolls in 2015, according to Delaware River Port Authority spokesman Mike Williams.
The Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission, which collects tolls on seven bridges in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, tallied 863,933 toll violations worth nearly $5.4 million in 2014, the most recent year data was available, according to the commission’s website.
On the Delaware Memorial Bridge, commuters piled up 228,309 violations last year, representing more than $2.1 million in unpaid tolls, spokesman Jim Salmon said.

Such losses contribute to a creeping rise in toll prices for everyone and have required armies of clerks to scrutinize security cameras for scofflaws, and collection agents to track down payment, officials say.

“It’s an equity issue. It’s about fairness for the customers who are paying. It’s about making sure everyone pays their fair share,” DeFebo said.

Uncollectible

Most toll violators are accidental offenders, transit officials agree. Some may have passed the E-ZPass camera unaware that their transponder had a dead battery or fell off the windshield and onto the floor. Others may be infrequent travelers from faraway places unfamiliar with the ways of EZPass. For those offenders, many transit agencies will pardon penalties and fees if they have proof, like a toll ticket or receipts from nearby hotels and attractions, of where they entered the toll road.

And many offenders eventually repay their skipped tolls, officials say. On the turnpike, for example, 70 percent of violations are resolved within 60 days, DeFebo said. And the Delaware River and Bay Authority, which collects tolls on the Delaware Memorial Bridge, recovered $853,687, or nearly a third of its evaded tolls last year, Salmon said.

Still, many agencies write off millions each year as “uncollectible,” saying it’s a necessary trade-off of electronic toll collections, a popular time-saver for road-weary commuters.

The turnpike, for example, wrote off $3.7 million in tolls as uncollectible last year. Compared to $668 million in total turnpike tolls paid electronically last year, $3.7 million might not seem like much.

But, DeFebo said, “running a highway system is a very costly enterprise. We have rebuilt more than 100 miles of our system to date, and that costs $20 million to $25 million per mile. So $3.7 million? That could build a bridge.”

Tactics

Truckers are the most common intentional offenders, officials agree, because tolls typically are based on weight. The heavier the vehicle, the higher the toll. So a 32-mile jaunt from the turnpike’s Valley Forge on-ramp to the Delaware River Bridge exit would cost a car $4.22 in the E-ZPass lanes, while a 40-ton tractor trailer’s toll for the same trip is five times higher, at $21.12.

So many drivers deliberately try to outsmart electronic toll-collection systems that they’ve spawned an industry online.

For $49.99, for example, you can buy “PhotoBlocker,” a high-gloss spray its maker claims will reflect the flash of traffic cameras to render a plate unreadable. “Get a can before you get a ticket!” the website warns. Another site offers the “TollFree Protector,” a prismatic plate cover to confound cameras, for $69.95.

And tightwads who don’t want to buy such products use grease, duct tape or whatever else is at hand to obscure plates, police say.

It’s illegal in Pennsylvania to modify vehicle tags in any way, said Pennsylvania State Police Lt. Edward C. Murphy. If caught, toll cheats face misdemeanor charges, as well as fines up to $6,500 and jail time up to six months, Murphy added.

Clamping down

Many transit agencies don’t rely solely on cameras to catch toll scammers, anyway.

State police occasionally will stake out interchanges with a history of chronic toll evasion to catch cheats — even putting a trooper inside a tollbooth for an up-close, unimpeded view of passing vehicles, Murphy said.

And at the Delaware Memorial Bridge, police began impounding and booting the cars of chronic offenders in 2009, Salmon said. The first deadbeat arrested under that law was a New Castle woman who’d skipped tolls 132 times the previous year, resulting in a $3,600 bill for delinquent tolls, fees, and penalties.

Others have found humiliation effective. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in 2012 posted a “Wall of Shame” online of 37 toll violators who evaded between $7,000 and $166,000 in tolls each.

The Burlington County Bridge Commission, meanwhile, has a simple answer to foil deadbeats: No EZ Pass.

“Gates only raise if payment is made, so we have no toll cheats,” spokeswoman Elizabeth Verna said of the commission’s two bridges, the Tacony-Palmyra and the Burlington-Bristol.

Pennsylvania’s law has few teeth to clamp down on evaders — but soon might gain strength. State Rep. Kate Harmon, R-Montgomery, introduced a bill in January that would allow transportation officials to suspend the registration of habitual offenders with six or more unpaid toll violations on the turnpike, or fines that top $500 within three years. That bill now is in committee. New York and Delaware already have similar laws on the books.

“That’s an awful lot of free trips on the turnpike,” Harmon said. “This law would get the people who habitually blow by the tolls and don’t get an E-ZPass. These are very, very serious scofflaws.”

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