September 10, 2019
William Entriken – a local business analyst, software developer and “civic hacker” – sent his E-ZPass transponder back to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission last week.
He was trading in travel convenience for peace of mind at a time when he’s engulfed in a Freedom of Information Act tango resulting from a bunch of unrecognized charges on his family’s account earlier this year.
As he explained it, his wife always made sure there’s $70 in their account to ensure they can cover E-ZPass charges over the course of a given month.
By foregoing the autopay feature, the couple had to pay close attention to their account balance to help stave off violation notices for using E-ZPass lanes while not having enough money available to cover tolls. But that’s not how it ended up going.
“When I logged into the account for the first time in February, I saw that there were a bunch of (extra charges),” he told PhillyVoice earlier this week.
That led to the question he asked aloud: “Why has it charged me $300 over the past few months?”
The answer has since evolved into a cautionary tale for anybody – like Entriken – who relies on E-ZPass to navigate the Pennsylvania and New Jersey turnpikes.
He’d gotten hit with about a dozen “V-toll” violations which, per the Turnpike Commission, are levied when a motorist’s E-ZPass transponder doesn’t register as a vehicle exits the system. ("V-toll" is shorthand for "video toll," an additional fee that motorists can accrue if they drive through an E-ZPass lane without an account, or with a faulty transponder.)
“Because the system cannot determine how far you traveled … you were charged a flat fee of $10, called a V-toll charge. If you receive a V-toll charge, check to see that your transponder is properly mounted,” reads the turnpike’s explainer, which fails to mention that V-toll charges can also result when a properly mounted transponder is faulty.
V-tolls were doubled to $10 in January for E-ZPass customers. (If you pay cash, the V-toll is $50.)
He – and possibly you – would likely not have learned about such charges if enrolled in the autopay program.
What’s more, it works to the Turnpike Commission's advantage in several ways.
“The transponders don’t last forever, but they won’t tell you that it’s not working anymore, and then it’s a $10 fine each time you use it,” he said. “If you use autopay, you won’t ever know.
"They have an incentive not to fix it. They’re getting money from the fines and saving money from not having to fix the transponder. They just wait for you to find it and then they’ll handle it. There’s a whole category for V-toll complaints about it on their website.”
Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission coffers also benefit in another way.
Turnpike officials have acknowledged publicly that most of the $10 V-tolls are racked up by commuters traveling just one or two exits on the turnpike. (For less than a $10 fare, you can drive from the Valley Forge interchange to Harrisburg or Wilkes-Barre, according to a toll schedule published on the Turnpike Commission's web site.)
That means unless a motorist who travels short distances challenges a V-toll and secures a refund (less the appropriate toll), he will get overcharged.
In significantly fewer cases, the turnpike comes out on the short end if E-ZPass customers are traveling long distances before incurring a V-toll.
Entriken – who previously developed an app to track late SEPTA Regional Rail trains and worked to get Philadelphia Traffic Court’s violations made public amid a scandal that would ultimately lead to the court getting abolished – was lucky insofar as finding the hidden fines.
Still, the whole dynamic prompted him to take action to help others who might not know realize their bank accounts are being nickel-and-dimed due to a faulty transponder.
“If they’re doing this BS thing, and they’re motivated to do it because of money, they’re doing something bad and it was time for a civic project,” Entriken explained.
“It’s one line of code that works on Safari and Chrome. It took me a half hour to write." – William Entriken
He was spurred into action when he tried to appeal all 12 V-toll charges on the turnpike’s website and quickly learned he was forced to appeal each fine individually. At five pages per protest, it was a time-consuming process
“I’m a civic hacker, so when I see something like this, I try to come up with a solution that’s good for everyone,” he explained. “It’s one line of code that works on Safari and Chrome. It took me a half hour to write. It fills in the entire five pages.”
When he did it, his appeals were successful – as he figured most are since they never seem to reach human eyes – but he's driven more by the principle of pushing back against a system that hits unsuspecting customers with unnecessary fines.
Entriken said he notified the Turnpike Commission about the issue with a device that they don’t own but license from a vendor.
He then received a 3x5 card with a sticker affixed to it which was sent to his home with “no comment, no return address and no letter explaining why I got this.”
“If they just played it cool, I never would have noticed and they would’ve hit me with that fine each time I went through an E-ZPass lane,” he said. (He has since learned that motorcyclists, in particular, are vulnerable because proper placement of the transponder is difficult to ensure it is "seen" by E-ZPass sensors.)
While his situation was remedied, he’s concerned for others, as the fines can “snowball.” He “just wanted to know how much this was happening."
"I was just hoping to connect with one person who this helped. ... That would brighten my day." – William Entriken
“I was just hoping to connect with one person who this helped, who said they found the V-tolls, disputed them and it saved me $10. That would brighten my day,” he said, noting that he can’t put a dollar figure on the total number of people impacted because the information isn’t publicly available. “If you like opening your pants pocket and finding a $20 bill, set yourself a reminder calendar to check your E-ZPass account every three months.”
Filing a Freedom of Information Act request, he aimed to find out the “total dollar value of all V-tolls fines (levied) from the past three years,” but that was denied by the Turnpike Commission, citing the privacy concerns of its customers.
That effort was not in vain, however.
It spurred Entriken to file other FOIA requests.
He hearkened back to a time when he was issued a $53 violation for traveling three exits along the New Jersey Turnpike after getting on from the Pennsylvania toll road. It broke down to $3 for the missed tolls and $50 for going through an E-ZPass lane without having a working transponder.
“The same thing would have been a $100 fine in Pennsylvania,” he said, claiming that the Pennsylvania Turnpike charges drivers for the entire length of the roadway from west to east, even if the three-exit trip is in the east-to-west lanes.
“They assume you come in from the furthest exit, which is perfectly reasonable,” he said. “But my interpretation does not include jumping over the median during a trip. Theirs is more physically exhilarating, though.”
To that end, he’s now engaged in a Right to Know back-and-forth with the Turnpike Commission.
He’s seeking a configuration of every lane at every toll plaza in the system, as well as information about every "first-violation notice" – where someone was issued a fine for exiting without a ticket. (Per the turnpike spokesman, a motorist would receive a first-violation notice, or "citation letter," in the mail for using an E-ZPass-only exit, booth or express lane without an active account or operational transponder. Motorists then have 30 days to appeal the violation. It's a $25 fee plus the total of what the toll would be from the furthest exit away.)
The Turnpike Commission declined his request, again citing privacy concerns and noting the onerous task of “going through 1.5 million tickets.”
“After making a good faith effort to locate records, I determined that there is no public record or class of public records that would contain the information sought,” wrote L. Evan Van Gorder, assistant open-records officer for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.
Entriken has since responded with case law which he thinks shoots down their rationale, arguing that the information is contained in an easily accessible database, not a stack of handwritten tickets, and that he’s not seeking drivers’ personal information.
He said the Turnpike Commission reached out asking for another week to respond to his appeal of their denial, which he was fine with granting.
The deadline for all arguments has passed, so the final determination on Entriken’s appeal is due by this Wednesday.
If he wins, we may soon find out just how much money the Turnpike Commission has brought in through V-toll and first-violation notice fines.
When contacted for comment about Entriken’s mission, Carl DeFebo – director of public relations and marketing for the Turnpike Commission – said that he had heard about the ongoing conversation, but not about the code that Entriken had written, which was posted online on August 12.
He acknowledged the disparity between Pennsylvania and New Jersey insofar as how the fines are calculated from the furthest distance. (While New Jersey factors in the direction a driver is traveling, Pennsylvania charges the highest possible rate for cash customers.)
"One of the challenges about E-ZPass across the country is that it’s out of sight, out of mind." – Carl DeFebo
DeFebo said the transponders help them keep track of where drivers enter and exit the turnpike, but bad placement and battery issues can lead to the V-tolls.
“We’re giving E-ZPass users the benefit of the doubt, but it’s set at that amount (at $10) to serve as a disincentive” for trying to game the system, he said. “We don’t want people to take advantage of it.”
When it comes to drivers who don’t notice the fines, he said the Turnpike Commission urges customers to regularly check their accounts. It even released a “PA Turnpike Trip Talk” smartphone app to make it easier to manage one’s account.
“You can easily monitor for V-tolls on the app,” he said, noting that the Turnpike Commission will replace customers' transponders at no cost. “E-ZPass customers need to think of their account as a credit card or bank account. It’s important to go online and check to help avoid problems so things don’t creep up on you.
“It’s just a good practice, and the app makes it super easy to do. One of the challenges about E-ZPass across the country is that it’s out of sight, out of mind.”
He also urged customers to make sure their transponders are properly mounted well before reaching the toll lane. The transponders register earlier than many people think – typically under the E-ZPass only sign, not at the end of the lane, he pointed out.
As for the privacy issues involved in Entriken’s requests, he noted that there are “significant privacy protection” measures in place, limiting the Turnpike to not release certain information unless they’re subpoenaed in a criminal case. This, because of the amount of credit-card transactions involved.
To find the app which makes it easier to keep tabs on your E-ZPass account, search for “PTC EZPass” or “PA Turnpike” on Google Play or in the Apple Store.
As for checking into your V-toll history, the New Jersey Turnpike site limits your search for the past three months when you log into your account online.
Entriken offered a line-by-line explainer of how to check in Pennsylvania in the “E-ZPass V-TOLL Batch Dispute Script” posting, which opens with the line, “You are probably paying tens of dollars of unnecessary fees to E-ZPass each month.”
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