One-way toll surprise leads motorist down windy road

As far as surprises go, the one Michael Benson encountered on his drive from Breezewood, Pa., to the Ohio border was small but annoying: an extra $3.90 charged by the Pennsylvania Turnpike. But what followed was anything but small. When he tried to find out about the mystery toll, he was given the runaround by Turnpike authorities.

Then he went to war with them.

If nothing else, the bureaucrats and marketing executives who read this site should note the lengths to which Benson went to get answers for a $3.90 charge. Think about it. If you don’t clearly explain your pricing, this could happen to you.

Benson checked the toll from Breezewood to the border before his road trip, and was told it was $10.30.

From that response, I assumed the return toll from Gateway was the same. On April 8, 2010, I drove on the PA turnpike from Gateway to the Breezewood exit. Shortly after entering PA at Gateway, a toll booth appeared and a charge of $3.90
was imposed. I paid that toll. At the Breezewood, PA exit, I paid $10.30.

Benson phoned the Turnpike’s customer assistance center and complained about the $3.90 charge.

A spokesperson tried to uphold the toll. When I asked to speak to someone else in authority, I was connected to another line which provided a voicemail message. I left a message and no one called me back in a reasonable time.

Undeterred, he called the governor’s office. He spoke with the Turnpike’s director of fare collection, but was told the $3.90 charge would stand.

He said that by computer the tolls are given out separately as $10.30 from Breezewood to Gateway and $14.20 for the reverse ride. He told me how to check that on the computer. I did so, and found that the disclosure was made as he said. The latter toll was broken down as $10.30 for a Class I ticket toll and $3.90 for a 2-axle toll.

More lobbying followed, including phone calls and letters to various officials. Pennsylvania insisted that it disclosed the toll on the return trip was higher, but Benson says the tolls were essentially unfair.

Tolls are generally based on mileage. Because logic dictates that a toll one way will be the same as a toll going the other way with the same mileage, I was induced not to check for a fare on the return trip.

I contend that the Breezewood to Gateway toll should have disclosed that the return fare was more than the fare for driving in
the opposite direction. This failure to disclose makes PA turnpike fares deceptive.

I called the Pennsylvania Turnpike Authority on Benson’s behalf, to see if I could find out if there was any middle ground. A representative said one-way tolls had been adequately disclosed, but agreed that they could be more adequate.

We have put a statement of clarification on our website to reinforce the one-way toll coming into Pennsylvania from Ohio, but we stand by our decision not to reimburse the $3.90.

The Pa. Turnpike is operated and maintained solely by toll revenues, not tax dollars, and we must collect a toll from all vehicles that use the road.

The Gateway one-way toll has always been listed online at www.paturnpike.com; also, many travelers visually observe the Gateway toll plaza on their westbound trip and note that a toll is to be paid upon entry coming back eastbound.

Still, Benson wins this round. How many hours of public officials’ time did he take up, forcing them to write letters and respond to his phone calls. Wouldn’t you say that time is worth more than $3.90?

And here’s the sobering lesson for the folks in corporate America reading about this case. A customer can lose a dispute — but still win.

(Photo: dougtone/Flickr Creative Commons)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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