By Ben Simmoneau
CHESTER COUNTY, Pa. (CBS) – On Tuesday, Pennsylvania Turnpike officials celebrated the opening of the highway's newest interchange, finally connecting Route 29 in Great Valley, Chester County with Interstate 76. But even as that $60 million project opens, the turnpike is facing renewed criticism of its finances.
Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner says his investigators found the Turnpike is handing out thousands of free rides every year, and they're not just going to the Turnpike's 2,000 employees, who can use their ID badge for free travel. Nearly 4,000 contractors and consultants are also getting free trips using access cards. Wagner says those cards do not contain a contractor's picture, so they could easily be passed from person to person.
In addition, more than 1,600 people have Turnpike paid EZ-Pass transponders.
"We're very concerned that there's too many free passes – over 7,000," Wagner said. "We're concerned the turnpike does not have good control over it, so the potential for abuse exists."
Wagner says the cost to the turnpike has been at least $7.7 million over the last five years. His examination of the free rides comes as he's pummeled the turnpike for a ballooning debt load. Drivers have seen tolls increases each January for years, and another increase will take effect on Jan. 6, 2013.
The increasing debt and tolls are required under Pennsylvania Act 44, in which lawmakers forced the turnpike to pay PennDOT $450 million a year for transportation projects around the state.
"Their debt has gone from $2.3 billion to $7.8 billion in five years," Wagner said. "We think they're digging a very deep hole that they're incapable of getting out of."
Attending Tuesday's ribbon cutting for the new interchange, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett refused to comment on the freebies.
"I'm not going to speculate until I see the report and see what it has to say," he said.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has pushed to end free rides for people on the Garden State's toll roads.
Eyewitness News asked Pennsylvania Turnpike Commissioner Pat Deon about the Auditor General's finding.
"I don't believe what I see I think are free rides," he said. "There are people working on the turnpike, there are people going on the turnpike. They're entitled to be on there if they're working and doing their jobs."
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