Not so E-Z Pass: Pennsylvania Turnpike problems with electronic tolling subject of 11 Investigation

Using an E-Z Pass is supposed to make driving the Pennsylvania Turnpike hassle free and cheaper for drivers, but 11 Investigates discovered that’s not always the case.

Some customers are angry and confused after being blindsided by $10 charges on their bill called “V-tolls” or video tolls.

“I looked, and I’m like, ‘What the heck is this?’ I said, ‘What is a V-toll? What is a V-toll?’” said E-Z Pass customer Tony Carlisano of Plum Borough.

Carlisano had never heard of a V-toll before. He lives just a couple of miles from the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s Pittsburgh interchange in Monroeville and used to jump on just about every day to go to work.

He showed us his E-Z Pass statement from January through July 2021. It had multiple $10 charges, which normally cost him only $1.60 to go to Irwin or $2.70 to go to New Stanton.

“You can see I go into work every day, 6 a.m. (It costs) $2.70. Coming home at night: $10,” he said.

Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission charges E-Z Pass customers a V-toll when their E-Z Pass transponder is not read when their vehicle exits or travels through a toll plaza. For passenger cars, it’s a $10 flat fee, which can be a lot more than the cost of a toll for short trips. They can add up fast and cut into your E-Z Pass savings if you don’t catch them and dispute the charges.

“Ten dollars a clip just to go, to go from here to Irwin,” he said incredulously. “It’s theft!” The toll normally costs him just $1.60.

With the addition of cashless, all-electronic tolling last year, some of those V-tolls can be the normal discounted rate if Pennsylvania Turnpike matches license plate pictures to your account. But if they don’t get two usable images, you can still get the $10 penalty fee.

Turnpike blames customers

But the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission blames customers for the problem.

“These V-tolls typically involve people that don’t mount their transponder, or a lot of people hold the thing up at the wrong moment,” said commission spokesperson Carl DeFebo.

He said customers are supposed to mount their transponder on the windshield just behind the rearview mirror. And if they don’t, it might not work effectively.

But even if the transponder malfunctions, DeFebo acknowledged customers can still get a $10 V-toll charge.

Other reasons a transponder might not register going through the toll plaza include:

  • Dead battery.
  • Malfunction.
  • Not having it in the car.

In an interview with Stacia Ritter, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission’s assistant chief operating officer and head of Toll Collections, she admitted old transponders are a part of the problem.

“When we looked at why those V-tolls were being generated, the majority of the customers had a transponder between 8 and 10 years old,” Ritter said. “That was showing the age of the transponder could be impacting the number of tolls.”

Steep penalty for short trips

Whatever the reason, many E-Z Pass customers we talked with thought $10 was too steep of a penalty for people taking just one or two exit trips.

“Ouch! Not nice!” said E-Z Pass customer Neal Atwell, who was traveling through the New Stanton rest stop in August.

Other E-Z Pass drivers echoed his sentiments.

“Oh my goodness!” said E-Z Pass customer Adam Lancaster when he learned the charge could be $10 on just one exit.

“Man, that’s crazy,” agreed Koran Johnson.

11 Investigates asked DeFebo if it’s punitive to charge customers so much to go just one or two exits.

“I wouldn’t say that it’s punishment. I mean, it’s incentive to call the Turnpike,” DeFebo said.

DeFebo said it’s up to customers to monitor their accounts for V-tolls and call customer service to dispute the charges. If they do, he said most of the time the charge will be reduced.

Not notifying customers

Carlisano said he didn’t even realize he was getting the charges for months because the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission never notified him.

“If you don’t check your account, they don’t notify you it’s not working. They keep hitting you with the $10 charge,” he said.

We wanted to know why the commission doesn’t notify customers.

First, DeFebo claimed it does.

“We absolutely do. Actually, we do,” he said.

But when 11 investigates pressed for specifics on whether there was a policy or threshold number of V-tolls that triggered the notification, he said he didn’t know and would have to find out.

When 11 Investigates followed up, the commission sent a response: “The number of customers notified in 2021 has been minimal because of COVID-related decreases in travel.”

But when 11 Investigates asked how many exactly was “minimal,” the response was “None.”

We followed up again to find out how many customers were notified in the years prior to COVID-19. Finally, it sent this:

The number of notifications to customers about V-tolls is:

  • 2020- 0
  • 2019- 0
  • 2018-0
  • 2017-0

Turns out, not a single customer was notified.

Many E-Z Pass customers said not notifying them isn’t fair.

“Sounds unethical,” said Atwell.

Lancaster said he believes the commission has a responsibility to customers to notify them.

“Anytime you’re taking someone’s money, there is a certain obligation to let the customer know what they’re paying,” Lancaster said.

Despite customer frustration, DeFebo insisted it was the responsibility of E-Z Pass users to check their accounts and call customer service for a refund.

WATCH WEDNESDAY: 11 Investigates discovered even monitoring your account for V-tolls might not be so easy because the $10 charges are not always labeled as “V-tolls.” See more on that in Part 2 of our investigation on Wednesday at 5:45 p.m.

Warning others

Carlisano ended up calling Pennsylvania Turnpike’s customer service department and was able to get the $10 charges reduced. But now, he wants to warn others.

“If they’re not checking their accounts, who knows what they’re getting charged?” he said.

If you see any $10 charges on your E-Z Pass bill, here’s the number to call the customer service: 1-877-736-6727.

Here are more resources: