A spokesman for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission said the number of free rides for employees and others is reasonable and not excessive as charged by state Auditor General Jack Wagner.

 ”This has been a practice since almost day one of the turnpike,” said spokesman Bill Capone. “Employees ride free but are required to assist with stranded motorists and report any maintenance or other issues that need attention.”

Wagner said a “liberal and inadequate” policy gave 7,000 Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission employees and vendors free rides on the turnpike between January 2007 and August 2011 that amounted to at least $7.7 million in lost toll revenue.

“With tolls set to rise again for turnpike customers on January 6, turnpike executives should stop granting toll-free personal travel to its employees and assure the public that they are doing everything within their power to hold down future fare increases,” Wagner said. “This type of waste is disturbing and exhibits a careless disregard for those who foot the turnpike’s bills — taxpayers and motorists.”

But Capone said Wagner’s numbers include first responders and vendors.

“Construction crews would bill us anyway to cover the tolls it takes to get to the site,” Capone said.

He added that a law approved by the General Assembly in 2007, Act 44, requires the Turnpike to transfer $450 million a year to PennDOT to finance roads, bridges and mass transit. The toll increases raise the money needed for the transfers.

Wagner recommended that the Turnpike Commission stop granting personal toll-free travel to its employees; that it aggressively monitor employees’ toll-free travel to verify that the toll-free travel is for official work duties only; that it improve its oversight of non-employee toll-free travel usage by, at a minimum, including a photo on its non-employee cards and by requiring commission staff to monitor non-employees’ free travel; and that it be transparent about the toll-free travel by posting monthly toll-free travel usage reports on its website.