January 16, 2023
Two people are accused of purchasing thousands of E-ZPass transponders from stores in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where they allegedly registered the devices using fake personal and credit card information and then sold them to truckers so they could dodge paying tolls, authorities said.
Federal prosecutors have charged Duvany Zambrano, 43, of Hamilton, New Jersey, and Sergio Jara, 37, of Allentown, for running the alleged scheme that investigators said began in 2018 and defrauded the Pennsylvania Turnpike of $1 million in tolls.
Zambrano and Jara allegedly sold the transponders to truckers in New Jersey who frequently hauled goods on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Since the E-ZPass transponders didn't correspond to the people using them, the drivers were able to avoid paying tolls. If found guilty, each defendant faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and fines.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike has been in poor financial health for years. Last fall, Auditor General Tim DeFoor said the Turnpike Commission's $13.2 billion debt is larger than the debt of the entire state government. Part of the commission's woes stem from its obligation under Act 44, which have required annual payments of $450 million to PennDOT since 2007 to support infrastructure projects. This year, the annual contribution dropped to $50 million over the next 35 years.
The state audit also found that uncollected tolls have ballooned to more than $104 million. Most unpaid tolls are from drivers who do not use E-ZPass and are instead billed via mail with the turnpike's toll-by-plate system. The Pennsylvania Turnpike has increased tolls every year since 2007, including a 5% hike that took effect Jan. 8.
To crack down on drivers with outstanding toll invoices, the turnpike is partnering with PennDOT to impose more severe penalties, including fines and driver's license suspensions for those who don't pay their balances.
“This law strengthens our efforts to hold violators accountable for failure to pay,” Pennsylvania Turnpike CEO Mark Compton said earlier this month.. “By far, most travelers do the right thing and pay their fair share. If you’re someone who believes there are no consequences for toll theft, we want you to know that you’re mistaken.”