More E-ZPass customers getting $10 penalty charges

PITTSBURGH — 11 Investigates has learned E-ZPass customers are getting hit with more $10 penalty fees this year than last year, and most are still not being notified.

In 2022, more than 150,000 customers received $10 V-tolls through the month of May. That’s about 35,000 more than in 2021 over the same time period. The Turnpike issued more than 300,000 of the penalty charges to those customers, which totals about 72,000 more than last year.

“We shouldn’t be overcharged and not notified about it,” said E-ZPass customer Scott Kovac, who was hit with eight of the $10 penalties in recent months. “That’s not right. It’s unfair. It’s unjust.”

Customers get the so-called “V-tolls” when their E-ZPass transponder fails to read going through a toll plaza.

As 11 Investigates first reported last September, many E-ZPass customers were blindsided by the fees because the Turnpike wasn’t notifying them about the charges, even though the Turnpike initially claimed they did.

The penalty drives up the cost of a common one-exit toll from $1.60 to $10, which costs more than six times as much. That penalty wipes out any savings customers expect to get by purchasing an E-ZPass.

Kovac, of New Huntingdon, says he didn’t know about the charges until his wife urged him to check their account after recently seeing one of our 11 Investigates reports.

“I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t believe it,” Kovac said. “The everyday consumer is being robbed, and we don’t even know it. It’s infuriating is what it is.”

Under pressure

The increase in $10 V-tolls this year comes as the Turnpike has been under pressure to improve transparency about the charges ever since our Channel 11 News investigation last fall.

In response to what we uncovered, a new bill was introduced in the state legislature to require the Turnpike, by law, to notify customers. That legislation, HB 2139, passed the House unanimously and is now making its way through the Senate.

After first being hesitant to agree to notify customers, the Turnpike is now supporting that bill and says it is taking steps to start notifying at least some customers about the charges.

Unfortunately, only customers with an excessive number of $10 penalties are being notified. A customer has to get nine $10 V-tolls in just a seven-day period to get a notification.

In new numbers shared with 11 Investigates, the Turnpike says they have sent about 1,800 notices out to customers this year.

The notice explains that a customer has received a high number of the penalties and explains possible reasons, including:

  • the transponder not being properly mounted
  • the transponder not in the vehicle
  • the vehicle has a metallic windshield (which can block the signal and requires an exterior transponder)

There is no mention, however, of old transponders, which — as the Turnpike ultimately admitted in our investigation — is part of the problem.

“When we looked at why those V-tolls were being generated, the majority of the customers had a transponder between 8-10 years old. That was showing the age of the transponder could be impacting the number of V-tolls,” Stacia Ritter with the Turnpike Commission acknowledged to 11 Investigates last September.

Transponder Replacement Outreach

Once a customer purchases an E-ZPass transponder, the Turnpike will replace it for free if it stops working due to a dead battery or malfunction.

The Turnpike says since the beginning of the year it has stepped up its replacement efforts.

“Since 1/2/22, the PTC has mailed more than 100,000 letters to E-ZPass customers regarding the replacement of their transponders – more than 5,000 letters sent on a weekly basis,” Turnpike communications director Carl DeFebo wrote in an email to 11 Investigates.

The information he provided also said the Turnpike follows up with phone calls to customers who don’t respond to the letter.

Additionally, in just the last few weeks, the Turnpike says they “launched an internal, partially automated process” to do a better job of cross-referencing license plate numbers to E-ZPass customers so they won’t get the penalty charge in the first place.

“This process is new, but early results are showing promise to post actual tolls to hundreds more accounts each day,” DeFebo said in the email.

Customers want ‘fair treatment’

11 Investigates asked the Turnpike to do an interview with us about their effort to be more transparent, but after first indicating they would last week, they declined over the weekend.

Scott Kovac says he has been an E-ZPass customer for about 15 years. He can’t remember ever getting a new transponder and was not among those who received a letter from the Turnpike.

Kovac is now in the process of disputing the $10 penalty charges he received but has only gotten reimbursed for some of them.

The Turnpike only allows you to look back at charges for 18 months and says it only gives customers three months to challenge them.

Kovac says he doesn’t think that’s fair, especially since the Turnpike hasn’t been notifying customers when they get the penalties.

“(I want to see) fair treatment for the consumer. We’re paying for the service. We want to pay what we owe and no more,” he said.

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