Pennsylvania Turnpike continues to offer employees free travel

Its officials respond to critical report

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Pennsylvania Turnpike employees will continue to have unlimited free travel on the toll road despite Auditor General Jack Wagner's recent criticism of the privilege.

Responding to Mr. Wagner's audit report last week, turnpike officials said they would consider steps to prevent potential abuses such as employees allowing others to use their free passes, but disagreed with the audit's description of the policy as a "generous perk" that costs millions.

They also said it was "wholly unfair" for Mr. Wagner to link the lost revenue to toll increases that the turnpike has imposed in each of the last five years, saying free employee travel had "absolutely no bearing" on the increases.

An analysis of Mr. Wagner's findings and turnpike financial data supports that assertion. The propriety of allowing free employee travel notwithstanding, the policy has had no significant financial impact on the turnpike.

Mr. Wagner reported that employees racked up $1.4 million in free travel over a period of 4 2/3 years using their ID cards. Another group that included turnpike workers and private contractors received $2.1 million in free rides using special E-ZPass transponders during the same period.

An unspecified portion of that travel was for legitimate business, but the turnpike does not keep track of whether trips are for business or personal reasons, saying that would be too cumbersome and labor-intensive. And it could not identify how much of the E-ZPass travel was by employees as opposed to private contractors who were working at turnpike job sites.

Even assuming the turnpike could have collected all of the money in question, it would have amounted to an annual average of about $760,000 -- less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the turnpike's current annual operating income, or an amount equal to about eight hours' worth of toll collections.

The total also works out to an average of about $360 per turnpike employee per year.

Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, a government accountability advocate, said free travel "would seem to be a reasonable perk" for turnpike workers, but the agency should impose tight controls to guard against abuse of the privilege.

One of Mr. Wagner's concerns was the E-ZPass transponders, which can easily be moved from vehicle to vehicle.

He said it would be possible for a turnpike employee to use his ID badge for free travel and give the transponder to someone else.

"Under the Turnpike's current control environment over special transponders, the Turnpike would never uncover such misuse, absent a tip from another person," the audit report said.

In its response, the turnpike commission said it agrees.

"We have been working on an effective means of auditing this area of our operations. The Compliance Department, having recently been constituted and reorganized, is beginning a comprehensive series of business practice reviews and among the early areas of exploration will [be covering] establishing tighter controls over this privilege."

A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette survey of other toll agencies found a variety of policies regarding employee travel.

The Ohio Turnpike gives its workers free travel to and from work and on official business but does not allow free personal travel on the toll road, spokeswoman Lauren Hakos said.

The New Jersey Turnpike Authority rescinded all free travel privileges for employees in 2010, at Gov. Chris Christie's request.

The board of the Illinois Thruway voted in 2011 to discontinue free travel for employees to and from work and on official business, but it delayed implementation after unions filed an unfair labor practice charge that is pending.

Illinois moved to rescind the free travel at the same time it was imposing an 87.5 percent toll increase. It estimated the annual value of the benefit at $221 per employee before the toll hike and $414 after.

Executive director Kristi Lafleur told the Chicago Tribune at the time that it would be inappropriate to allow free rides for employees while imposing higher costs on tollway customers.

The private company that operates the Indiana Toll Road has provided unlimited free travel privileges as an employee benefit since it took over in 2006, said Amber Kettring, public relations manager for ITR Concession Co.

New York State Thruway employees hired before 2005 are eligible for free travel using E-ZPass and retain that benefit upon retirement. Those hired between 2005 and 2008 get free travel after five years of service, but only to and from work. Those hired after 2008 do not get free travel, spokesman Colin Brennan said.

electionspa - state - Transportation

Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/Roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic.


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