Pennsylvania lawmakers call for answers following 11 Investigation into Turnpike charges

It’s been one week since 11 Investigates first exposed confusion and a lack of transparency over penalty fees the turnpike charges E-ZPass customers.

Since our report, many viewers contacted 11 Investigates to say they also discovered they were hit with the $10 charges.

“I didn’t realize they were happening until I saw your report,” said E-ZPass customer Eric Wells, of Plum Borough, who found nine of the $10 penalties on his account. “I was kind of surprised I had so many!”

State Representative Ryan Warner (R) of Fayette and Westmoreland counties, who sits on the House Transportation Committee which has oversight over the Turnpike Commission, also said he didn’t know about the problem until seeing our investigation.

“Frankly, this is just unacceptable,” Warner said. “I commend you and WPXI for this investigation and bringing this to light.”

More customers discover charges

As we first reported last week, the turnpike is charging customers millions of dollars in $10 fees when their transponders fail to read when they enter a toll plaza, but the turnpike doesn’t notify customers when it happens, even though they first claimed they do.

“Frankly, there’s no excuse,” Rep. Warner said. “This is very simple technology that they would be able to shoot these E-ZPass customers an email, just to let them know.”

The penalties can drive up the cost of short trips by as much as six-times the normal discounted rate, wiping away savings customers are supposed to get for buying an E-ZPass.

For example, a one exit, Pittsburgh to Irwin trip that normally costs $1.60 repeatedly turned into a $10 penalty charge for customer Tony Carlisano.

“It’s theft!” Carlisano told 11 Investigates in our original report. “Being ripped off. What else is it?”

After seeing our investigation, many customers were also frustrated to discover they were getting hit with the charges and had no idea it was happening.

“I saw your story and I was like I better check it,” said Pat Fetter, of Greensburg, who drives the turnpike every day to work at the VA Hospital in Oakland.

Sure enough, he found seven charges adding up to $70 going back to April, which was as far back as his E-ZPass account would let him check.

“It’s wrong,” Fetter said. “They should notify you. It’s the honest thing to do.”

Eric Wells, who is a software engineer, was also among those who contacted Channel 11. He had $90 in the penalty charges and doesn’t understand why the turnpike would not notify customers.

“I should have been notified somehow. They have my email address, my phone numbers, my address,” Wells said. “A notice would be the easiest thing to do. It could be automatically generated.”

Lack of Transparency Angers Lawmaker

As 11 Investigates reported in Part 1 and Part 2 of our investigation, the turnpike first claimed it does notify customers about the charges. But when we pressed for specifics, a spokesperson admitted in follow up emails that’s not the case. In fact, no customers at all have been notified going back at least five years.

Now, State Representative Warner of Fayette and Westmoreland counties wants an explanation from the turnpike on why consumers were being blindsided.

“My initial reaction is just extreme disappointment and frustration with the Turnpike Commission,” Warner said.

He called the turnpike’s sometimes evasive answers to 11 Investigates concerning.

“That absolutely erodes pubic trust, and frankly, I think they need to issue an apology, just for publicly lying,” he said. “That was not ethical, at all.”

Warner says he was also frustrated that the turnpike first blamed customers for the problem, saying it happened mainly because they don’t mount transponders correctly. The turnpike later admitted to 11 Investigates part of the issue is old transponders.

“I don’t understand why they wouldn’t be open and honest with this issue and take a look at it, rather than trying to deflect,” Warner said. “If that transponder is old and needs replaced, that’s their issue.”

He says it is unacceptable that the turnpike does not notify customers about the charges and is calling on them to begin doing so, immediately.

“Frankly, Angie, this is just unacceptable. It’s completely unacceptable,” he said to 11 Investigates’ Angie Moreschi.

Call for Accountability

Warner contacted the chairman of the House Transportation Committee and wants to see a hearing on the v-toll issue.

“I would like to have the Secretary of Transportation in a hearing as soon as possible to explain, one, how this even happened; and two, what they’re going to do to fix this,” Warner said.

He says the problems 11 Investigates uncovered with the v-tolls are a sign of a bigger issue.

“This goes on to shine a light on a bigger issue at the turnpike, the complete mismanagement of the turnpike from the top down,” he said, referring to the turnpike’s ongoing debt problems.

Disputing the charges

Meantime, the turnpike continues to put the burden on customers to find the charges on their bill and call customer service to dispute them—which can also be a confusing process.

As we reported in Part 2 of our investigation, the turnpike uses different labels for the charges on customer accounts, despite first telling us they were only called “v-tolls.”

“If you see a $10 charge and it says v-toll you should call us right away and we can address it to your satisfaction, right away,” Turnpike spokesperson Carl DeFebo first told us.

Turns out, the turnpike also lists them simply as “toll charges.” So, customers must be vigilant looking specifically for all $10 charges to find these penalties. That is the flat fee charged when a transponder fails to read.

When you check your statement, be aware, the turnpike only allows customers to look back 16 months on their online accounts, but if you call in to customer service, they can look back farther.

Still, disputing the $10 charges isn’t as easy as the turnpike claimed it would be.

Customer Pat Fetter called to get a refund for the seven charges he found on his bill and says he had to argue with customer service to get them.

“They said they would give you a partial refund only going back 3 months,” Fetter told us. “I raised holy heck with them and told them I want all my money back!”

Fetter says he threatened to sue the turnpike and pushed until they finally refunded the charges, but now he’s more frustrated than ever.

“The system is broken. They need to fix all their issues. It shouldn’t be this difficult,” Fetter said.