E-ZPass customers could get more transparency on penalty charges as bill moves forward

Legislation introduced in response to a Channel 11 News investigation took another step forward toward becoming law today.

The ‘E-ZPass Notification Bill’ passed out of the Senate Transportation Committee by a vote of 8-to-2.

“This particular fix could help thousands of people in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, so it’s a good bill,” said state Sen. Jim Brewster (D) of Allegheny and Westmoreland Counties, who’s on the Senate Transportation Committee.

Last month, the bill passed unanimously in the full House. It will now go on to the full Senate for consideration.

The legislation would require the Turnpike to notify customers about $10 penalty charges they get when their transponder fails to read going through a toll plaza.

11 investigates discovered many customers were getting blindsided by the $10 fees called “V-tolls” and had no idea until seeing our reports.

More than 250,000 drivers were hit with the $10 V-tolls last year alone.

“Frankly, your investigation opened my eyes, because I had no idea the number of folks impacted, number 1. And number 2, how long it could go on without anyone noticing,” Brewster said.

As we first reported in our investigation last fall (Part 1 and Part 2), the Turnpike wasn’t notifying customers about them, even though first claiming they did.

Even more V-tolls this year

New data just provided to 11 Investigates by the Turnpike shows even more customers are getting the V-tolls this year than last year. In 2022, the Turnpike has issued 306,545 V-tolls through May 31. That’s about 72,000 more than the same time period last year.

The charges have impacted more than 150,000 E-ZPass customers this year, which is about 35,000 more than last year for the same time period. The Turnpike indicated in its data that the increase is due, at least in part, to an increase in E-ZPass traffic.

“The public, in many cases, didn’t know this was happening. That’s really something that’s on us, and we have to fix that,” said Brewster, who is now championing the bill in the Senate.

New law would increase transparency

The Turnpike says most of the V-tolls are caused when E-ZPass customers don’t mount their transponders properly on their windshield, but during our investigation, also acknowledged that old transponders, which the Turnpike is supposed to replace for free, were also part of the problem.

The legislation, HB 2139, was introduced in response to our investigation by state Rep. Ryan Warner (R) of Fayette and Westmoreland Counties. It passed the full House by a vote of 203-to-0 on May 24.

Now Brewster is pushing for its passage in the full Senate as well.

He says with inflation skyrocketing, passing the bill is more important than ever, because many E-ZPass customers can’t afford to get blindsided by this penalty.

“Because of these automatic deductions from your credit or debit card, it’s become a big problem,” Brewster said. “You have to look at the total expense the public has to endure, right now. If you’re using the Turnpike, now you have the potential for a mischarge, in addition to your tolls and your gasoline.”

The E-ZPass notification bill would specifically require the Turnpike to notify an E-ZPass customer the first time they get a $10 V-toll in a calendar year, provide an explanation of what caused it — like improper placement or an old transponder — and notify customers they must take action to fix the issue or they could get more.

Going after Scofflaws

The bill would strengthen the Turnpike’s ability to go after people who have excessive amounts in unpaid tolls. That became an issue last year, after an internal audit by the Turnpike Commission showed $104 million in tolls went uncollected after the transition to all-electronic tolling was made.

This legislation would reduce the threshold for the Turnpike to pursue suspending a vehicle’s license, from six to four unpaid tolls and reduce the amount required for that action from $500 to $250. It would also increase the statute of limitations to pursue a scofflaw from three to five years.

Sen. Lindsey Williams (D) of Allegheny County was one of the two ‘no’ votes on the bill. She told the committee she supports the E-ZPass transparency portion, but has reservations about giving the Turnpike more authority to go after people with unpaid tolls.

“I believe many well-intentioned drivers and account holders may be subjected to these repercussions and because of that, I’ll vote no,” Williams said during today’s hearing.

The Turnpike’s Position

The Turnpike Commission was initially hesitant to agree to notify customers about the penalty charges when 11 Investigates first raised the issue last fall, but has come around and supports this bill.

“PA Turnpike leaders worked closely with lawmakers during the development of HB 2139, and we are pleased to see this important bill advancing through the General Assembly,” Turnpike Communications Director Carl DeFebo told 11 Investigates in an email.

Since January, the Commission has also been slowly taking steps to begin notifying E-ZPass customers who get V-tolls.

Brewster is pushing for the bill to go before the full Senate, and says he believes it’s important to move forward now to increase transparency on toll charges and make the system more fair to consumers.

“There’s no pushback. No one’s resisting this. In fact, there’s a lot of folks who are going to benefit from your investigation,” he said.