Turnpike freebies a problem, Wagner says - abc27 WHTM

Turnpike freebies a problem, Wagner says

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Pennsylvania Turnpike employees get to drive the toll road for free. So do contractors, maintenance workers, emergency responders and some state officials.

Exactly how many get to skip the toll booth? Where are they going? What exactly are they doing? Are they driving for business or pleasure?

These are all questions the Auditor General asked the Turnpike Commission this afternoon about freebies. Jack Wagner said the commission was not so free with its answers.

"The simple fact is [the commission] can't tell you that. They can't tell our auditors that. They can't prove that. And in today's modern world they should be able to," Wagner said.

The audit took place between 2007 and 2011, and Wagner says Commission-provided numbers value free rides at $7.7 million. It showed that 2,132 turnpike employees have ID badges that give them free access to the turnpike, and 3,828 contractors and consultants have non-employee ID cards that grant them toll-free privileges. There are also 1,609 "special" EZPass transponders distributed to employees, state police and state officials.

With all those free passes out there, Wagner wants to know: Are some benifits being abused? Are many being abused? Are none being abused?

"That's really what's so troubling to us," Wagner said. "We can't give you a finite number and neither can [the Turnpike Commission] give you a finite number."

Wagner is asking for stricter controls and he wants them in place before a toll hike on January 6. He thinks employees should only be given free access for work purposes and not for leisure trips. He thinks non-employee badges should have photos and wants EZPass use to be more closely monitored.

"We think in this modern era of technology, especially with the evolution to all EZPass, information should be much more finite and in much more detail."

As a watchdog, Wagner has repeatedly nipped at the heels of the Turnpike Commission. In the past, he's cited its $7.8 billion debt as a major problem. He also points out that every dollar not collected is a dollar that is not going to fund crumbling roads and bridges across Pennsylvania.

"The Pennsylvania Turnpike cannot afford to waste one dollar," he said.

Wagner also pointed out that when the audit began, the Turnpike Commission wasn't exactly forthcoming with information.

"They were] not as cooperative as I would like them to be," he said.

Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo said the commission just received Wagner's latest report and wouldn't comment until it could be digested. He did, however, promise complete cooperation with the auditor general's office moving forward.

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