Target 11 Investigates: Toll free turnpike travel

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PITTSBURGH - Rates go up and up, but a Target 11 investigation uncovered thousands of people riding the Pennsylvania Turnpike for free. 

It got us asking, “Is this why we’re broke?”

Target 11 Investigator Rick Earle traveled to the Turnpike’s headquarters to see who doesn’t have to pay.  

Earle discovered that nearly 8,000 people have free passes. While many of them are supposed to be for “business only,” Target 11 found out that that’s not always the case. 

From Pittsburgh to Philadelphia on the Turnpike will cost you $29.65.  But 2, 132 turnpike employees don’t have to pay anything at all.  They get to ride for free even when they're not on duty. 

We wanted to know what some turnpike drivers think about this perk? 

“No, that’s not right.  We have to pay so why shouldn’t they?” said one driver. 

“I guess I don’t see that any different than any perk that might be given to an employee,” said another driver who didn’t have a problem with it. 

“I worked for the U.S. Post Office for 41 years and we didn’t get anything special,” added another driver.

It’s a perk that has cost taxpayers millions since it first went into effect back in the 1940s. 

“To use it for leisure and the turnpike says they are not tracking that use at all is unbelievable,” said Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R), Cranberry Township. 

Leaders at the turnpike contend it’s an insignificant portion of total free travel but former Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner estimates that during the past five years the Turnpike has lost nearly $8 million.

“We think it's out of control and it has to be brought under control,” Wagner told Earle.

In addition to the 2,000 or more employees who get free passes, nearly 4,000 contractors and consultants along with approximately 30 state officials get to drive for free. 

Earle traveled to the turnpike's headquarters in Harrisburg to see who else is on the list of free turnpike travelers, but no one would talk to him.

After submitting a right to know request with the turnpike, Earle finally received a partial list of those with the free passes. 

Using that information along with data form the Auditor General’s report, Earle was able to determine who gets to ride free.

Three PennDot deputy secretaries each get passes.  The Lt. Governor also has one, and the governor’s office has 21.   A spokesman with the governor’s office tells Target 11 they are strictly for business.

“If it's official business I don't think people will be concerned but if it's on your own time, and you’re making trips on vacation,” said Metcalfe.

Free passes also go to 48 different construction companies.  The turnpike wouldn’t release the names of the companies.  They did say that 19 passes go to the turnpike engineering firm, Pittsburgh based Michael Baker Corporation. 

State police, towing companies, ambulance services, service plaza employees and the company that manages EZ pass also have free passes.   Most of them are supposed to be used when they have business on the turnpike, but the former auditor general says there’s little tracking, and the system is ripe for abuse.

“The turnpike does not have good oversight of these free passes, and when you are raising rates every year in January, you better start watching how you are spending money on yourselves,” said Wagner. 

In a letter sent to the former Auditor General and obtained by Target 11, the Turnpike acknowledged the need to “implement an added level of accountability.” 

“It really points to some of the bad business practices that I believe have been perpetrated in some of the departments, including by the turnpike commission,” said Metcalfe. 

At this point, the turnpike doesn’t appear willing to change the toll free travel policy for employees.  They say it's worth it because the employees serve as an extra set of eyes to report any problems. 

Click on this link to see the entire breakdown of people who have the free passes.