PITTSBURGH — Feng Wang is clearly angry.
“I think I should not be charged this amount of money!” he says.
Wang is the owner of an E-ZPass, a product issued by the Pennsylvania Turnpike that promises lower fares when you drive on the highway — just pass through the electronic tollgate, which “senses” your E-ZPass.
The only problem? An 11 Investigates probe first broadcast in September 2021 revealed something startling.
For years, some E-ZPass drivers were getting blindsided. Instead of getting charged a lower toll rate, in many cases they would be charged a much more expensive “V-toll” of $10. On top of that, state toll authorities weren’t bothering to make their customers aware of the penalty charge.
Just ask customer Wang. On a business trip this past August, he went from Monroeville to Butler Valley.
“In the morning, it was $2.90,” he says.
But on the trip back home on the same day, he got “V-tolled” for $10 when the toll plaza failed to electronically read his E-ZPass, costing him three times more than earlier that day.
“To me, it’s not fair,” he says. “You didn’t tell me.”
We also discovered that Feng is hardly alone.
In 2021, state figures show nearly 300,000 E-ZPass drivers were hit with V-Tolls. For 2022 so far, that number is up, with 430,000 $10 V-tolls fined to drivers.
At first, tollway officials told 11 Investigates that they were notifying customers of these penalty charges sneaking onto their monthly bills, but later they admitted that they hadn’t alerted drivers about the toll in years.
When we spoke with state politicians, they were not happy.
“Nobody knew the magnitude of the problem until you did your investigation, and thank you for that,” said Democratic state Sen. Jim Brewster.
Brewster is supporting a bill introduced in direct response to our investigation to increase transparency for the V-toll charges. House Bill 2139 passed the state House unanimously in May and is now making its way through the Senate. It would require by law that the turnpike notify customers about V-tolls.
“It’s needed for fairness and transparency,” said state Rep. Ryan Warner, R-Fayette County, who sponsored the bill. “If you’re being charged for something, you should have an idea of what and how you’re being charged. That’s the bottom line.”
As the bill makes its way through the Senate, with a possible final vote in October 2022, turnpike officials say they have started to notify customers about the penalty tolls.
In an email to 11 Investigates, the agency wrote: “As of August 4th, we send daily notifications to customers who had $10-v-tolls posted to their E-Z Pass account.”
In addition, the turnpike tells 11 Investigates that new software allows them to reduce V-tolls by checking plate numbers against E-ZPass account records.
So even if your car’s pass isn’t detected when you drive through, they say this new software will match your license plate to your E-ZPass account so you don’t get the penalty toll.
In the meantime, in a just-released state audit, the auditor general confirmed the tollway failed to collect $104 million in tolls since switching to all-electronic tolling in 2021 and that the problem is likely to get worse unless action is taken.
The report recommended that the Pennsylvania Legislature do something to help.
As a result, if passed, HB 2139 will not only force the turnpike to alert drivers about any V-tolls, but will also give them stronger penalties against turnpike drivers who don’t pay their toll-by-plate bills.
This 11 Investigates update features the Turnpike’s new software that helps reduce incorrect V-tolls.
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