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E-ZPass penalty charges irk Pennsylvania Turnpike drivers | TribLIVE.com
Westmoreland

E-ZPass penalty charges irk Pennsylvania Turnpike drivers

Jacob Tierney
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The Monroeville Interchange to the Pennsylvania Turnpike on Nov. 23, 2015.

Patty Wolfe was browsing Facebook when she saw a friend’s warning: Check your E-ZPass statement for higher-than-usual toll fees for trips on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Wolfe heeded the advice.

“The very first statement I looked at showed me getting on at Irwin, for $10, and me getting off in Monroeville,” the Hempfield resident said.

The trip should have cost $1.40.

Upon further inspection, Wolfe found she had been repeatedly overcharged for almost a year — racking up $137 in extra charges beyond what she should have normally paid.

She made her own Facebook post — to the popular Across Westmoreland group, which has more than 50,000 followers.

“I thought, ‘I should put this public because this is a big deal,’ ” she said.

Her post quickly gained traction. It was shared almost 400 times and racked up nearly 300 comments, many from people who made similar unfortunate discoveries.

Though the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission will refund the overcharges, Wolfe said she thinks the agency should do more to let customers know what is happening.

“This is obviously a widespread thing,” Wolfe said. “They’re overcharging people and not doing anything about it.”

Those extra-high fees of $5 or $10 each are called v-tolls, a turnpike commission spokesman said. Those fees are charged when a tollbooth can’t read the E-ZPass transponder inside a vehicle traveling through the plaza. The practice is designed to deter would-be cheaters.

“In order to charge the appropriate toll, we need to know where you got on and where you got off the turnpike,” said Carl DeFebo, a turnpike commission spokesman.

A camera snaps a digital image of every license plate as a vehicle exits the turnpike. If the plate is linked to an E-ZPass account, and if the plaza didn’t detect a transponder, the account is charged a v-toll.

V-tolls increased to $10 in September.

By far, the most common reason drivers are smacked with a v-toll is for not having a transponder installed properly — or at all, DeFebo said.

“People don’t install it. They basically put it in the center console or glove box and then hold it up at the toll booth,” he said. “A lot of people pull it out at the wrong moment.”

By the time drivers get to a tollbooth, it is too late. They’ve already passed the equipment that reads transponders.

Old transponders also cause problems by not being read correctly.

The commission will replace faulty transponders for free.

“These things don’t last forever,” DeFebo said. “They last between 12 and 18 years, but they do expire.”

That’s most likely what happened to Wolfe, who got her transponder in 2006.

But even new transponders can fail.

Jessica Gardner of Greensburg saw Wolfe’s Facebook post and checked her own statement.

“Sure enough, I have, from September 2017, $300 worth of $5 and $10 charges on my account,” she said.

She and her husband, Brian, got transponders in 2017. His isn’t properly installed on his windshield. Hers is — and most of the extra charges were for her car, she said.

When the Gardners called the turnpike commission, they were initially told they’d receive new transponders but could be refunded only for charges from this year, not 2017 or 2018.

Another customer service representative later said the commission would look into refunding the older charges.

“At this point, we don’t really know anything,” Jessica Gardner said.

Without Wolfe’s Facebook post, she would never have thought to check her account, she said.

“Our lives are busy. We don’t have time to monitor our account; we just pay the bill,” she said.

Like Wolfe, she wonders why the commission never contacted her about the penalty tolls.

“The turnpike commission is not notifying anyone. They’re just charging everyone erroneously,” she said.

Turnpike commission staff do monitor E-ZPass accounts for an unusual number of v-tolls, and they will notify customers if something looks amiss. But they can’t spot every issue, DeFebo said.

“We are managing 2 million accounts, and we have a couple hundred customer service representatives,” he said.

Almost 80 percent of drivers on the Pennsylvania Turnpike use E-ZPass, with almost 2.4 million accounts and about 3.3 million transponders in the state. That’s up from 1.7 million accounts and 2.5 million transponders in 2016.

The best way for drivers to avoid v-tolls is to monitor their accounts regularly, DeFebo said.

“One of the challenges here is that our customers don’t often check their account statements,” he said.

This year, the turnpike commission launched its E-ZPass smartphone app, designed to make it easier for drivers to track their accounts. If drivers see v-toll charges, they can usually get refunds by calling the turnpike commission, DeFebo said.

“We want people to call us if they see these,” he said.

Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jacob at 724-836-6646, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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