11 Investigates: Not so E-ZPass -- Part 2

Some Pennsylvania E-ZPass customers are frustrated and confused over $10 penalty charges that can happen when their transponder fails to register when driving through a toll plaza.

WATCH PART 1 HERE>>> Not so E-Z Pass: Pennsylvania Turnpike problems with electronic tolling subject of 11 Investigation

“How can you charge me an extra $10? You saw me go through the toll. You tagged my plate. I have an account!,” said exasperated E-ZPass customer Tony Carlisano of Plum Borough.

Carlisano discovered multiple $10 charges on his E-ZPass bill after realizing his bank account was being drained more quickly than usual.

When he called turnpike customer service, they told him they were “V-tolls” or video tolls, which charge a flat $10 fee when his E-ZPass transponder fails to read.

As 11 Investigates reported in Part 1 of our investigation, for Tony that meant a one-exit trip from Pittsburgh to Irwin cost him $10, instead of the normal $1.60 rate.

“Being ripped off! What else is it?” Carlisano said.

He said he doesn’t understand why he would get such a steep penalty, especially now that all-electronic tolling took effect on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, last year. The turnpike decided to move up its transition to all-electronic tolling during COVID in March of 2020, and laid off nearly 500 toll booth workers. Now, with the Toll-by-Plate system, the turnpike takes a picture of your license plate when you enter and exit, so it should have a backup system to verify if your E-ZPass doesn’t read.

“I have an account. You have my plate number. You take pictures. Why do I even need a transponder?,” Carlisano asked.

Getting the turnpike to explain how and when E-ZPass customers are charged the $10 fee under the new system wasn’t so easy.

11 Investigates went back and forth with turnpike officials for nearly two months trying to get a clear explanation, and found even some of their own employees seemed to be confused by it.

Confusing Process

The first turnpike spokesperson 11 Investigates talked with, Renee Colborne, said they don’t take a picture of your license plate if you’re an E-ZPass customer.

The second person, though, said something different.

“It does. It takes a picture of your license plate, even if you have a transponder,” said Director of Public Relations and Marketing Carl DeFebo.

In an on-camera interview, DeFebo indicated the issue was they don’t save the picture of your plate if you’re an E-ZPass customer.

“If it’s matched as an E-ZPass license plate, that image is wiped. It goes away. We don’t need it, because we see you’re matched to an E-ZPass account,” DeFebo said.

But when 11 Investigates followed up to ask why images would be deleted, since they could be used to determine a toll if an E-ZPass transponder fails, the turnpike changed its response.

In an email, turnpike Manager of Media and Public Relations Rosanne Placey said they are kept, after all.

“If the image is used for a revenue transaction (e.g. a V-toll and Toll by Plate), then it is kept for a minimum of four years. If an image is not used, then it is deleted after 180 days,” Placey wrote.

Adding to the confusion, later in that same email, Placey wrote, “License plate images are not taken if the E-ZPass transponder is read.”

Technology Limitations

With the new all-electronic tolling the turnpike should have information on both ends of an E-ZPass customer’s trip when their transponder fails, making it possible to calculate the actual toll - but that’s not always the case.

After more than a month going back and forth, the turnpike’s head of fare collections, Stacia Ritter, told us they charge the $10 fee when there’s a mismatch of information.

“If I have a transponder read on entry, and I have a license plate picture on exit,” she said, “We will charge the $10 V-toll rate.”

So even though they have information for where you on and where you got off, Ritter says their system can’t match the two, because pictures only connect with pictures and transponders only to transponders.

“Right now, we just don’t have the formula, the technology, to match those, but we’re working on it.”

That is a major source of frustration for Carlisano.

“You have faulty equipment and you’re charging me for it!,” he said.

Toll-by-Plate Customers Don’t Pay Half the Time

Even more frustrating for many E-ZPass users, Toll-by-Plate customers get away with paying nothing nearly half the time.

An internal turnpike report obtained by 11 Investigates shows 45.2% of the time Toll-by-Plate customers ride for free for a variety of reasons, including unusable license plate images.

11 Investigates wanted to know if Toll-by-Plate customers have to pay anything when there is a usable picture on only one end of their trip.

“No, we wouldn’t be able to match it to anything else,” Ritter told us.

In response, we asked, “Why are you tougher on your E-Z Pass customers, since they get charged when there’s only one end of the trip, but Toll-by-Plate (drivers) don’t?”

There was silence for several seconds, as both DeFebo and Ritter considered the question and wrote down notes.

Several hours later, we got an answer.

In an email, Ritter said Toll-by-Plate customers are also charged a $10 fee when there’s no image on entry, but they do have one on exit. An invoice is mailed to them, if their license plate can be matched to their registration, even though there’s no way to calculate the actual toll amount.

With all-electronic tolling, the turnpike says if they get two usable license plate pictures and can match the entry and exit to an E-ZPass account, they will charge you the discounted rate. If your transponder fails or you don’t have a transponder in your car, though, you could get a usable picture only on one end, potentially leading to a $10 charge.

Why is the charge $10?

Typically, tolls are based on how far you travel, but Pennsylvania Turnpike penalty V-tolls are a flat $10 fee, no matter how many exits you travel. So, the charge ends up costing drivers like Carlisano who travel short distances a lot more than drivers going long distances.

“Being ripped off, what else is it?” Carlisano said of the unequal treatment of E-Z Pass customers.

11 Investigates called the Virginia Turnpike, which also uses E-ZPass. They charge no penalty to E-ZPass customers for at least three months if their transponder fails to read. If it happens more than five times in one month, customer service told 11 Investigates they begin repeatedly sending E-ZPass users notification of a problem, either by email or post cards. Finally, if it is not fixed after three months, they add an extra $1 fee on top of their discounted rate.

So, why is Pennsylvania’s fee $10?

The turnpike told us it was a “business decision that a V-toll rate of $10 is an appropriate toll charge used in place of issuing violations notices, where by law, customers could be charged the maximum toll rate from the farthest point of entry.”

But Carisano says a $10 charge to go short distances is punitive.

“$10 a clip to go from here to Irwin,” he said incredulously. “That’s one exit!”

Making matters worse, we discovered the Turnpike doesn’t notify customers when they get the penalty charges, leaving it up to E-Z Pass users to figure it out.

Customers Not Notified

The turnpike is paying private contractor TransCore $175 million dollars for a five year contract to do its billing and customer service.

11 Investigates read the contract and it calls for “customer notifications,” specifically for “excessive V-tolls,” but as we first reported in Part 1 of our investigation, that’s not happening, even though the turnpike first claimed it was.

When asked if the turnpike has an obligation to notify customers that they’re being charged a penalty, both Ritter and DeFebo defended the lack of transparency.

“It’s the customer’s duty to monitor their account,” Ritter said.

DeFebo told us the $10 charge is intended to flag customers that there’s a problem with their account. He says they can often get the charge reduced if they call customer service.

“We want our E-Z Pass customers to call if they see a V-toll on their account, that’s really what the bottom line is,” he said.

But 11 Investigates discovered even checking your account for V-tolls isn’t so easy. It turns out that only some of the $10 penalties are labeled as “V-tolls,” while others are labeled “toll charges.”

We asked the turnpike why the $10 charges are labeled differently, making it harder for customers to find them, since they first told us they were only called “V-tolls.”

Ritter told us she wouldn’t be able to answer until she saw Carlisano’s bill, so we sent her pictures. Finally, she emailed back saying they do label them differently at times, based on whether a transponder or license plate picture is used to issue the charge.

“That’s ridiculous,” Carlisano said, angry at how confusing they make it. “You think this is just me this is happening to? I don’t think so.”

Class Action Suit

He is not alone.

A class-action lawsuit was filed just this past April on behalf of all E-ZPass customers, calling the V-tolls “outrageous...unreasonable... and a breach of the public trust.”

11 Investigates will continue to follow this and let you know what happens. If you discover these $10 charges on your E-Z Pass bill, you can contact 11 Investigator Angie Moreschi at amoreschi@WPXI.com.