The Pennsylvania Turnpike has new tools to go after scofflaws who have failed to pay about $161 million in tolls for using the highway.

On Thursday, the state House gave final approval to a bill that lowers the threshold for when the turnpike can go after motorists who refuse to pay tolls. Now, the turnpike can begin proceedings to cancel vehicle registration when drivers owe $250 in unpaid tolls instead of $500; when they have four unpaid tolls instead of six; and go after them for up to five years instead of three.

Turnpike CEO Mark Compton said the changes will help the turnpike reduce unpaid tolls, known in the industry as “leakage.” The changes will go into affect 60 days after Gov. Tom Wolf signs the legislation.

“The fact is that uncollected tolls are largely due to drivers dodging their responsibilities,” Mr. Compton said in a news release. “These customers receive invoices but simply choose not to pay. This legislation will allow us to better hold accountable those who intentionally cheat the system.”

For the fiscal year that ended in May, turnpike users who don’t have E-ZPass and do receive a bill through the mail have failed to pay about $161 million. Under the previous rules that began in September 2016, the turnpike has collected $11.4 million in tolls and fees associated with 23,095 suspended registrations.

Mr. Compton called the changes “an essential step” because they will allow the turnpike to go after customers sooner, which should help because it will be easier to pay a smaller debt. The $500 threshold may have been so high that customers found it difficult to catch up if they fell behind and therefore tried to ignore the responsibility, he said.

“Five-plus years of experience have shown that it is better to act sooner to maximize chances of collecting from those who think it is OK to ride free,” Mr. Compton said. “We are here to tell you, it isn’t.”

The agency estimated the changes would qualify another 25,000 vehicles for registration revocation. Anyone caught driving a vehicle with its registration suspended could face a mandatory three-month suspension of their driver’s license, a fine of up to $500 plus court costs, and higher auto insurance rates. Motorists who use the turnpike’s Toll By Plate system — where a picture is taken of their license plate and they receive a bill in the mail if they don’t have E-ZPass — have 30 days to pay the bill. If they don’t, they get a past-due invoice with a late fee if $5 or 1.5%, whichever is higher. 

Invoices unpaid after 60 days go to collections. 

The turnpike encourages all customers to use E-ZPass by placing a 45% surcharge on all Toll By Plate transactions. Customers can eliminate that surcharge by immediately becoming an E-ZPass user.

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at