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Stiff stiffs Turnpike Commission with unpaid tolls

Published June 05. 2019 01:32PM

If you want to be guaranteed that your name will be splashed from one end of Pennsylvania to the other — and beyond — be the state’s most prolific toll violator and have the last name of “Stiff.”

The road to redemption will be filled with many potholes for Jarrett Stiff, a 36-year-old from Trevose, Bucks County, who now has the dubious title of Pennsylvania’s most egregious toll evader.

Don’t laugh too hard, those of you in Carbon and Lehigh counties, because the Turnpike Commission has you in its sights next, so if you have any outstanding toll violations, you had better settle them quickly, or you, too, might get the Stiff treatment.

Stiff did not pay for 2,264 trips he made on the turnpike between 2012 and 2017, more than anyone else in the state, according to the commission. During that time, he accumulated $127,967 in unpaid tolls and penalties.

For an agency that is hemorrhaging cash, the story took flight and had us buzzing about ineptness and incompetence in an agency that can’t seem to get its act together.

More than a year ago, the Turnpike Commission had begun an aggressive enforcement campaign to go after thousands of toll violators who owe millions.

For a little while after learning that Stiff had stiffed the agency, we were feeling pretty good about the fact that the commission was in crackdown mode, but then came word that it had agreed to settle Stiff’s case for $11,504, or about 9 percent of the total bill.

That’s right. Stiff pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft of services. He made a down payment of $3,500 and is being allowed to repay what he owes at the rate of $275 a month. He also was ordered to serve five years of probation.

Social media went crazy, citing this as yet another example of commission ineptitude. Many called for the members of the commission to resign en masse.

I thought it might be interesting to find out who serves on the commission. State Transportation Secretary Leslie S. Richard chairs the commission in an ex officio capacity; the other members are William K. Lieberman of Pittsburgh, vice chairman; Barry T. Drew of Mechanicsburg, secretary-treasurer; and members Pasquale T. “Pat” Deon Sr. of Bucks County and John N. Wozniak of Johnstown.

The most famous of the group is Deon, who also serves as chairman of SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority). Nearly seven years ago, the American Public Transportation Association awarded its Outstanding Public Transportation System Award — the “Oscar” of the bus/subway/trolley world — to SEPTA and cited Deon for his leadership in putting the agency on a firm financial footing.

Let’s hope this prolific Republican fundraiser and big investor in the Sands Casino’s parent company can work some of that magic on the turnpike’s many financial and other ills.

Mark P. Compton is the commission’s appointed chief executive officer and earns nearly $152,000 a year. Lieberman, who in reality serves as chair since the Transportation Secretary has no vote, earns $28,500 annually, while each of the other three commissioners makes about $26,000 a year. They have great perks with an expense account, a car to use on turnpike business, and they do not pay turnpike tolls. None of these salaries is paid with taxpayers’ funds; they come from tolls and other sources.

Getting back to scofflaw Stiff. The commission claims that the settlement it made with him is not all that unusual, because when the tolls and penalties are assessed they are always calculated at the farthest distance.

In other words, if you drive from Mahoning Valley to Lehigh Valley, the actual E-ZPass toll is $2.30 one way, but if you don’t pay, you are charged $38, as if you drove all the way across Pennsylvania, plus administrative costs.

When the commission and toll violator negotiate what is owed, this is one of the factors taken into account, and a more realistic number consistent with usual trips the violator makes is factored in, a commission spokesman said. In Stiff’s case, he used the Quakertown interchange most often.

Stiff was one of three sentenced in Bucks County Court. The others were Kelly Robinson, 33, of Lansdale, with 840 violations and who owed $66,552 (will pay $7,388) and ordered to serve five years’ probation, and Ayelet Farage, 48, of Elkins Park, who paid the full $17,000 she owed after failing to skip 822 tolls. She was sentenced to one year of unsupervised parole and will have her record cleared after serving 52 hours of community service.

Ray Morrow, the turnpike commission’s chief compliance officer, said what we all needed to hear: “The main thing we’re after is getting our money back.”

By Bruce Frassinelli |

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