January 13, 2022
For years, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has struggled to capture millions of dollars in uncollected tolls, a problem that ultimately limits the state's ability to reinvest in road infrastructure.
One Pennsylvania lawmaker thinks the state can solve its problems by accepting payment from apps like Venmo, PayPal and Cash App.
State Sen. Marty Flynn, D-Lackawanna, wrote a memorandum last week seeking co-sponsors for a bill that would direct the PA Turnpike Commission to accept PayPal, Venmo, Cash App and Zelle as valid forms of payment. These apps would improve revenue collection, Flynn believes, and offer a simpler method of payment to motorists who don't use transponders such as E-ZPass.
“We need to enter the 21st century and give people the option to pay for Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls using these apps,” Flynn told City & State. “The process could – and should – be modernized and streamlined so that it's easier and quicker for Pennsylvanians to pay their tolls.”
Flynn cited feedback he's gotten from constituents who are frustrated with the turnpike's current payment system.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the turnpike made a series of dramatic changes. The state moved to an all-electronic tolling system in 2020, getting rid of toll workers and eliminating cash and credit card payments. The toll-by-plate system captures images of license plates and sends invoices to drivers through the mail if they are not using E-ZPass.
But an internal report from the Turnpike Commission last year found that drivers not using E-ZPass had about a 50% chance of not being billed by the toll-by-plate system. In the year that ended last May, nearly 11 million of the 170 million turnpike rides did not generate revenue, and more than $104 million in tolls went uncollected — up from $88.8 million the previous fiscal year.
The revenue shortfall has been made worse by the fact that fewer people are on the road and using the turnpike during the pandemic.
Flynn is not proposing that app payments replace any of the existing payment options, but rather that drivers can opt into a more efficient method that enables them to pay immediately.
One of the biggest and most frequent complaints Flynn has received is that toll-by-plate invoices take too long to generate. A customer’s first invoice is generated thirty days after the travel date, and the payment due date is then 20 days from the invoice generation and mail date.
"This sluggish process undoubtedly contributes to the Turnpike Commission’s low collection rates," Flynn said.
Some states have been amenable to allowing app-based payments for tolls, specifically through an app called Uproad that began in California and is now active on about 175 tollways in 14 states.
The app allows drivers to link debit or credit cards, Venmo or PayPal accounts to the system and pays tolls automatically.
One concern with Uproad is that the simplicity comes with a tradeoff. Those who it use are subjected to processing fees that increase costs or otherwise must pay a $1.99 monthly charge for the premium version of the app.
Flynn did not specify what type of system he would aim to introduce in Pennsylvania, whether it would be based on a framework in other states, or whether Uproad would be a platform the state considers if introducing this type of change. His office did not return a call on Thursday morning.
The Turnpike Commission recently approved a 5% increase in tolls for all E-ZPass and toll-by-plate rates across the entire system, with the exception of Turnpike 576 in western Pennsylvania.
Flynn is introducing a package of bills that aim to increase toll collection in Pennsylvania and improve oversight with reporting to the General Assembly, in addition to reinstating some toll collection staff who can accept cash at each interchange based on traffic volume data.