“So you got fined on the 520 bridge. Quit whining!” one reader wrote.
“You used your position at the newspaper to vent about an issue only because it affected you personally,” critiqued another.
“Just get a Good to Go pass, you dolt,” advised a third.
My column last weekend about how the state has levied $45 million just in fines on the 520 toll bridge — including $40 recently to me — did not exactly swell some readers’ hearts with compassion.
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So enough about me and my petty fine. Instead meet Mary Ghiglione and Ken Wiseman, of Seattle. They did just as you savvier commuters suggest — they got a Good to Go pass when the tolls started on 520 back in 2011, linked it to their credit-union account and proceeded to commute to Bellevue worry-free for two years.
Worry-free. Not, as it turns out, problem-free.
When their credit union merged with another, it caused their account to change, which delinked it from their toll account. They got statements from the state about toll crossings but assumed those tolls were being paid with their online setup.
Big mistake. For five months, the tolls weren’t being paid. Fast forward to May 2013, when, out of the blue as far as they were concerned, they got a bill from the state totaling … $8,346.82!
Now that’s a toll bill that’s anything but petty.
These folks don’t dispute crossing the bridge, or owing the tolls (the tolls totaled about $800 for 187 crossings). They aren’t blameless. But they are suing the state to contest the “unconscionable” level of the fines, and also the state’s notification scheme.
“The state saved up all the fines for nearly a year and then hit my clients with all 8,000 bucks at once,” says their Seattle attorney, Ray Siderius. “Our contention is that if the state had fined them when the first batch of unpaid tolls was past due, back in the fall of 2012, my clients would have then fixed the problem with their Good to Go account.”
An administrative-law judge had zero sympathy. Even if you set up your Good to Go account for automatic charges to your bank or credit card, it’s on you to check if it’s working, the judge told them. The state has no obligation to inform you that it isn’t.
“Don’t they have a responsibility to send us a civil penalty in a timely manner?” Wiseman asked the judge, arguing that at least then they would have known there was a problem.
Nope. The judge ruled the couple owe all $8,346. They appealed that last week.
“What the state is doing is outrageous, but that’s the lawyer in me talking,” Siderius said. “The law gives the state a lot of leeway. The state doubtless isn’t going to agree.”
I took a look at the most recent appeals of the toll system down at King County Superior Court. The highest bill, also mostly fines, was for an eye-watering $11,000. A 29-year-old commuting to a temp job at Microsoft said he didn’t see the original bills because they were sent to his parents’ house in Spokane.
“For over one year, my parents had been throwing out the Good to Go packets because they looked like junk mail,” he testified. He lost.
In another case, a woman loaned her car to her son. He crossed the bridge 75 times (about a $300 toll bill). When he didn’t pay, she was fined $3,000. She argued that rental-car companies are excused from paying tolls or fines if they tell the state who was driving, so likewise she should be able to rat out this driver, her son. There’s a Greek drama in there somewhere, but in any case, she lost.
Even if you disagree with my view that these fines are too steep, a moral of these stories is: Beware this bridge. Having an automatic account is no sure thing. Check it regularly. Don’t wait to be billed, as you might with any normal business service. If you suspect that you or anyone using your car has crossed the bridge in the past two years, call the state (866-936-8246) and ask: “Hey, do I owe you anything?”
In one case, the seemingly simple act of using a toll bridge ended up life-altering. A Renton man with a Good to Go account he thought was linked to his credit card racked up more than $5,000 in civil fines for nonpayment. He lost, then appealed, arguing his credit card was in good standing all along. But eventually he was a no-show for a hearing.
Who was at fault? In the end, it didn’t much matter. A note on the case file said the man couldn’t pay that much in fines and so “had elected to move out of state.”
The bridge, it can break you.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org