Pennsylvania lawmaker calls for immediate action at Turnpike following Ch. 11 Investigation

PENNSYLVANIA — A state lawmaker is calling on the Pennsylvania Turnpike to be more transparent about $10 penalty fees it charges customers when their E-ZPass transponders don’t work properly.

State Representative Ryan Warner (R) of Fayette and Westmoreland counties sent a formal letter to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission requesting that the agency start notifying customers about the $10 flat fee.

“I was disappointed to learn via a WPXI investigative news report that the Pennsylvania Turnpike is not notifying customers that their transponders may need to be replaced. I was also disturbed to learn that they are not being notified of the $10 V-toll associated with the transponder failure.”

Our investigation revealed the turnpike does not notify customers about the charges, even though a spokesperson first claimed they do, leading St. Rep. Warner to admonish the turnpike for providing inaccurate information.

“This issue is compounded by repetitively providing conflicting or false information to reporter Angie Moreski when asked for simple information from the Commission,” Warner wrote in the letter to Turnpike Chief Executive Officer Mark Compton.

In an interview with 11 Investigates after sending the letter, Warner voiced concern about a lack of transparency.

“I believe that erodes the public trust and believe it looks bad for the pa turnpike which already lacks a lot of confidence from customers in this state,” Warner said.

The letter was also sent to the Pennsylvania Secretary of Transportation and the Chair of the House Transportation Committee to make them aware of the issue.

Passengers Blindsided by $10 charges

Warner, who sits on the House Transportation Committee which has oversight over the Turnpike Commission, first became aware of the $10 charges, which the turnpike calls v-tolls, after the Channel 11 News investigation.

“I commend WPXI for bringing this to light,” Warner said in an interview with 11 Investigates.

For passenger cars, the penalty tolls are a $10 flat fee, which can be a lot more than the cost of a toll for short trips. For example, a one-exit $1.60 toll from Pittsburgh to Irwin jumps in cost all the way to $10. That’s nearly six-times as much, wiping out any savings offered by getting an E-ZPass.

Many customers had no idea they were getting hit with the fees, until after our report.

Several viewers contacted Channel 11 viewers after the story aired, upset to find they had $10 charges they never realized were there.

“It’s frustrating. It’s really upsetting as a customer of the turnpike,” said Delmont resident Jared Baker, one of the viewers who contacted 11 Investigates after the story aired.

Baker found three $10 charges on his bill when he reviewed his statement for the past 16 months, as far as the Turnpike website allows you to look back.

Complicating matters even more, turnpike customer service is restricting refunds to just the past three months, even though a turnpike spokesperson told 11 Investigates it would be easy for customers to get refunds if they just called.

Baker was only able to get one of his charges refunded.

“According to them, I can only go back 90 days in fighting their V-tolls,” Baker told us. “I’ve been traveling the turnpike for 5-plus years now, so who knows how many v-tolls I potentially have on my account that I can’t even see.”

The three-month limit to dispute the charges is another issue St. Rep. Warner addressed in his letter to the Turnpike.

“Since many customers have only recently learned of the V-tolling issue, I also request that the current 90-day dispute period be extended or the dispute cutoff date be temporarily suspended,” Warner wrote.

Blaming customers

WPXI also learned that even though the turnpike first blamed customers for the penalty charges-- saying they were mainly caused when customers did not mount transponders correctly, the COO of Toll Collections Stacia Ritter admitted part of the problem is old equipment.

“When we looked at why those v-tolls were being generated the majority of customers had transponders between 8 and 10 years old,” Ritter told 11 Investigates in a follow up interview.

Warner told 11 Investigates it is unacceptable for the turnpike not to notify customers, especially when their transponders may no longer be functioning correctly.

“I’m asking them at a minimum notify customers that they are being charged with these fees. I think it is only right. It is fair and it’s very simple for them to do,” Warner said.

Consumer Lawyer

Pittsburgh consumer lawyer Jim Pietz said not notifying E-ZPass customers doesn’t seem very fair and could possibly be a violation of the Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

“We use the smell test. Does something smell here?” Pietz said. “At what point did they have a duty to disclose? They may have known these transponders were not working correctly and they were hiding that fact and not telling consumers. To me that’s a classic Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act.”

Customers like Jared Baker say they just want their money back.

“I don’t care if it goes back 3, 5 ‚7 years, I don’t care. They should fix all of the v-tolls!”

State Representative Warner says he hopes the turnpike will act on its own to fix this problem, but if not, he plans to introduce legislation to address the v-toll issue. He says he’s already drafting a bill and calling for co-sponsors.