The 520 toll bridge is taking its toll. About 80,000 drivers have had their car-tab registrations put on hold when they didn’t pay the state’s punishing toll fines.
The word “toll” has two main meanings. It’s a fee to cross a bridge. It’s also “the extent of loss, damage or suffering resulting from some action or calamity.”
The 520 toll bridge earns its name in both senses of the word.
We’re now getting the first look at the widespread impact the bridge’s gouging system of fines is having on the driving public.
In the past two years, the state has requested holds on the license tabs of more than 80,000 drivers who were fined for failing to pay tolls on the bridge, and then didn’t pay the fines. That’s more cars than the bridge carries on a typical workday.
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The other big photo-tolling bridge, the Tacoma Narrows, has generated about 40,000 registration holds. So a total of 120,000 drivers have been in enough trouble for nonpayment of toll fines to risk having their tabs revoked.
Maybe this is the state’s new way to combat global warming — by fining more than a hundred thousand cars off the road.
More than 90,000 of those are considered active license-tab holds. The total they owe, almost entirely in fines: $52.7 million.
“It’s a crazy amount,” says Laurie Shiratori, one of a trio of Seattle lawyers who uncovered the information in a public-records request. “People aren’t paying those fines, often because they can’t pay.”
The lawyers, in January, filed a class-action suit against the state’s 520 bridge tolling system, arguing that the fines and bureaucratic appeals process are so unfair as to be unconstitutional.
Their digging around has uncovered a new trove of toll horror stories.
“We have one case where the bill is $60,000,” says Catherine Clark, one of the three attorneys. “The next-highest I’ve seen is $27,000.”
To get to those levels, drivers would have to cross the bridge 1,000 times or more without paying, then be fined a $40 civil penalty plus $5 administrative fee for each missed toll payment. When your toll bill is worth more than your car, it’s hard to see how that could happen without negligence or cluelessness on the part of the driver.
In most of the smaller cases, though, the drivers never got the bills or had some glitch in an online account and so tallied up a few thousand in fines before realizing it, the attorneys say. Because the fines are so steep this can happen in a matter of months.
Regardless of who’s at fault in any given case, the lawsuit is showing just how widespread the carnage is.
Fines now make up 30 percent of the revenue on the 520 bridge (or would if people were paying them). Last year, the 520 collected $61 million in tolls, while drivers were levied $26 million in fines and fees.
“Something’s wrong with a system where a third of it is fines,” Shiratori said.
What’s wrong, in my humble opinion, was revealed last month in the state Legislature. Lawmakers were debating a “tolling customer service reform,” Senate Bill 5481. It basically was to force the state to be more flexible with toll customers and treat them like human beings instead of cash machines. (Good news: that part passed.)
But key to the original bill was a one-time amnesty program. You could get your fines waived a single time. (You would still have to pay the underlying tolls.) The premise was to give one pass while drivers learn their lessons, and that the state shouldn’t be in the business of bankrupting people who made a mistake and want to make it right.
But the state Department of Transportation got the amnesty plan killed. The state argued that excusing some fines via the proposed amnesty would cost the state more than it would return in tolls, and that these costs would be shifted to other taxpayers. The civil penalties are put into an account to be used to pay for bridge work.
It’s insidious that photo-tolling was ever set up to gouge people $40 for each missed $4 toll (a tenfold markup.) It’s doubly insidious that now we can’t get out of it.
Information in this article, originally published May 15, 2015, was corrected May 22, 2015. A previous version of this story stated that fines collected on the 520 bridge from drivers who don’t pay their tolls are used to help pay off debt on the new bridge project. The fine money actually goes into an account to be used to directly fund work on the bridge project.