HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The allegation was listed on the fourth page of a judge's order last month that dismissed a whistleblower lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Turnpike — that trucking companies had found a way to get around restrictions on who qualified for a 20 percent discount on tolls.
Plaintiff Ralph Bailets claimed that smaller outfits were going through large organizations for E-ZPass accounts, allowing them to meet eligibility standards that required $10,000 a month in toll charges.
Bailets, Judge Rochelle Friedman wrote, informed accounting supervisor Anthony Maun "of the loss of potentially millions of dollars in toll revenue, but Maun did not take action."
For several years, two entities, Heavy Vehicle Electronic License Plate Inc. and Best Pass Inc., have been by far the largest commercial customers of the toll road system — and Best Pass has helped smaller operators qualify for the substantial discounts.
How much the practice cost the state agency is unclear, but Best Pass president John Andrews said the great majority of its customers would have qualified for the discounts on their own. He said the practice helps the turnpike avoid having to track down people who don't pay their bills.
"The upside for the tolling authorities is that we are taking all the risk," Andrews said.
The Turnpike Commission recently turned down a Right-to-Know Law request from The Associated Press for hard numbers on who reaped savings from the volume discount program, saying the Transportation Act shields that information from public scrutiny. It also declined to disclose any information about the results of any investigation into the use or abuse of the program.
Turnpike spokesman Bill Capone said the role played by HELP, as it is known, and Best Pass was "just something that evolved."
In 2004, neither entity was listed in the turnpike's annual financial report among its 10 largest commercial customers, but by last year, they ranked No. 1 and No. 2, far outpacing the others on the list. HELP paid $49.5 million in fares last year and Best Pass $35.2 million. The third-highest amount was paid by FedEx Ground, $3.4 million.
"If these entities didn't exist, we, the turnpike, would be dealing with all of these individual companies ourselves," Capone said. "There's a cost to manage E-ZPass, whether it's commercial or not. That's part of the trade-off, the benefit to us as an agency."
Until a few years ago, the discounts ranged from 10 percent, for those with at least $1,000 in monthly tolls, to 20 percent for those who pay at least $10,000 a month. As the agency has phased in incentive discounts for all users of E-ZPass, the volume discount has fallen to 3 percent and requires at least $20,000 in monthly tolls.
Jim Runk, chief executive of the lobbying and advocacy trade group the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, said the volume discounts help direct traffic away from smaller roads onto the turnpike and the middlemen can shield the turnpike from having to pursue customers who don't pay their bills.
"I'd be hesitant to call it a scheme," Runk said. "This was put together and organized through a reputable trucking organization."
Phoenix-based HELP also runs a system that gives truckers preclearance to avoid stops at weigh stations, president Karen Rasmussen said. Nearly half a million trucks are currently enrolled, and prepaid tolls are part of the service. The volume discount helps run HELP, she said.
"I think it's pretty inaccurate to say they get huge discounts — they really don't," she said. "We at HELP get some discount."
Bailets, a witness in the turnpike investigation that generated pending criminal charges against a turnpike chief executive, other high-ranking agency officials and a former state senator, said he is appealing the decision by Friedman to dismiss his whistleblower lawsuit.
His attorney, Jim West, said that if the lawsuit is revived, he plans to seek more facts about the discount program.