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PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Eyewitness News discovered a few thousand people get a pricey perk when driving along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Unlike most drivers who have to pay the toll, more than 2,000 Turnpike workers do not, including for personal travel, according to Turnpike officials.
How much does it cost?
The Pennsylvania Auditor General’s Office released a report in 2013 finding PA Turnpike employees’ free travel cost a minimum of $1.4 million in lost tolls during four and a half years.
A subsequent 2016 report from the Auditor General’s Office shows the Turnpike lost another $1.2 million in free trips in 1.5 years.
Both reports called for free personal travel to end but the Turnpike continues to give away free tolls.
“It’s not pennies, I’ll give you that,” said PA Turnpike CEO Mark Compton. “As it relates to the size and amount and the cost-benefit analysis it’s still a benefit.”
Eyewitness News later asked to see specifics about the “cost-benefit analysis.” But the Turnpike doesn’t keep data on it. Instead, Turnpike officials insist that employees are like the eyes and the ears of the toll system, whether they’re on the highway for business or on a personal trip. That’s because Turnpike employees are required to assist drivers who may need help — say if a driver has a flat tire. They must also report problems, like if there’s a crash, according to a Turnpike policy.
Those employees are also trained to report exactly what dispatchers want to know, including an incident’s specific location, direction of travel and other types of information a dispatcher may need. Employees also know to dial star-1-1, not 911, when reporting an incident on the PA Turnpike. That also includes calling for debris in the roadway, like the tread of truck tires.
“I want those employees on the road even when they’re in leisure travel,” Compton said. “Because what they do is they’re called to help motorists who are stranded, who are in harm’s way or in need. So candidly, even for those folks, I’d like them to be on road whenever possible.”
Turnpike officials also say its compliance department conducts regular audits of employee abuse and say there has been cases of employees getting dropped from the free travel program, although officials couldn’t say how many.
But policy experts point out that tolls on the PA Turnpike have increased every year since 2009, so giving away free tolls to select drivers should have a better justification than reporting incidents.
“Different voters have different responses but that doesn’t sound like something too compelling for me,” University of Pennsylvania Political Science Researcher Marc Meredith said. “If I hear something like that it’s like someone searching for justification for a policy it sounds like they don’t have a better one they could be using.”
Right now, the Pennsylvania Auditor General’s Office is again auditing the PA Turnpike. That report is expected to come out in December. Officials in the AG’s office wouldn’t say what it will include, but if it’s like past audits, it will likely again call on the Turnpike to end the free personal travel for employees.
Still, Meredith also said for real change to happen, it’s likely that elected officials need to step in.
As for the New Jersey Turnpike, it does not allow employees free personal travel.