We’re back with another installment of “For Whom the Bridge Tolls.” Except this ongoing feature should be renamed “For Whom the Bridge Gouges.”
It may gouge thee, of course. Recently, it gouged me.
I’m talking about the Highway 520 bridge and its bureaucratically unyielding photo-tolling system. Two years ago I chronicled the Kafkaesque case of a commuter who crossed the bridge, never got a bill for the toll, proved to the state that she never got said bill, but still was forced to pay a $40 fine (for a $3 toll).
The state Legislature then changed the law so you can appeal when a toll bill doesn’t reach you. That was good, but what the Legislature did was so limited that these egregious $40 fines keep piling up on commuters.
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It turns out that in the first two and one-quarter years the state has been tolling on this bridge, they have levied a whopping $45.5 million just in fines. That was all in an attempt to recover only $4.8 million in unpaid tolls.
These fines are the No. 1 complaint I hear about from the public. If you Google “520 bridge toll civil penalty,” my name pops up on the first page. Scores of folks have written to me in the past two years with civil fine horror stories.
I give them the same unhappy advice. One: You can appeal, but you probably won’t win. Two: Next time, drive around.
Their stories are all similar. You go across the bridge without an electronic pass and then either don’t get a bill or you get one and pay it but there’s some glitch and then wham, a couple months later you’re hit with a $40 fine. Shock number one is there’s a separate $40 fine for each unpaid toll. Shock two is that the state’s otherwise helpful customer service reps won’t, ever, waive the $40 fine. Even when they admit the state made some mistake.
“We can’t undo the fines,” says Patricia Michaud, a state DOT spokeswoman. “It’s state law. Only a judge can do that.”
Meaning you have to appeal to an administrative law toll court, regardless of whether you paid the toll.
I got hit with such a $40 fine earlier this year. We had recently changed our license plates (due to that inane requirement the state has that you have to get new plates every seven years). When we got a $3 toll bill in the mail, we paid it — except that, unknown to us, it went into an account linked to our old license-plate number. Later we got another bill, with a $5 late fee, and thinking we must have crossed the bridge another time, paid that bill, too. That also attached to the old plate number. Finally the state fined us for nonpayment — even though by then we had paid $11 for our $3 toll.
When the state discovered there were two accounts for one car, they transferred the money and all was cleared up. Except they refused to cancel the $40 fine. You have to appeal that to court, they said. Having wasted enough time and brain cells, we gritted our teeth and paid the $40, too.
This column is not a plea for my money back (it’s the cost of living in the big city, as my wife likes to say). But if a single bridge racks up $45 million solely in fines in two-plus years, something is seriously out of whack. In the same time period, only $125 million in actual tolls was collected.
“You’re not the only one who hears complaints about that $40 fine,” said Patty Rubstello, director of toll operations for the state. “The question is what’s the right amount of fine to get people’s attention, so they take it seriously and pay these tolls?”
She said both the size of the fine and the appeals process were set by the Legislature. So only the Legislature can change them.
OK, legislators: You don’t have to gouge us like this. In Vancouver, B.C., they also have a photo-tolling system. But there are no fines, and you settle any unpaid tolls when you renew your car tabs. What our state is doing is the kind of tactic one might expect from a payday lender.
I bet more people would settle their toll bills if the fines weren’t so steep.
As it stands, there are now 45 million more reasons to cross the lake on I-90 instead.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org