The steady drumbeat of 520 bridge toll horror stories has finally boiled over into a class action lawsuit, exactly as a judge predicted it would, five years ago.
Five years ago, when the state was setting up the photo-toll system on the 520 bridge, a local judge made an unusually bold prediction.
If you put both the toll fines and appeals process on that bridge under the control of the state roads agency, you will get sued by outraged citizens, the judge told state lawmakers in Olympia. And you easily could lose.
“Since the birth of our democracy, it has been well settled that government cannot take from its citizens without due process of law,” Barbara Linde, who was then chief judge of King County’s District Court system but who is now in Superior Court, scolded legislators at a 2010 hearing.
“In my view, it will only be a matter of time before an aggrieved citizen — and there will be many aggrieved citizens — brings a class-action lawsuit,” she said (italics mine).
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Once again, the person nobody listens to turns out to be right.
On Thursday, three law firms filed exactly that class- action suit. It argues that the 520 bridge’s tolling fines and bureaucratic appeals process are so tilted against the people that they are unconstitutional, as well as in violation of consumer laws.
“People are being gouged by the government in ways no private business could get away with,” summed up attorney Mary Anderson.
The suit is derived from toll horror stories in the news for the past three years. They go like this: Commuter crosses bridge, has some glitch with photo-tolling account or never gets bills in the mail and — wham! — commuter is hit with eye-watering fines. There’s no place to appeal but a merciless administrative review set up by the transportation agency itself.
I have told some of these stories, and I hear new ones every week. (My email in-tray would be a rich class-action client pool.) The main grievance is that the state feels it isn’t obligated to send out toll bills. And that the fines, $40 on each missed toll, are so steep they can turn minor account snafus into multi-thousand-dollar collection actions.
Take Nicola Livic, of Redmond. He has a transponder on his car, linked to a credit card to automatically pay his tolls. But when his credit-card number was changed by the bank (due to a fraud issue), his online account stopped working.
No big deal. Except that the motor-vehicle department had his mailing address wrong (his ends with a box number, #44, that somehow got dropped.) So all the subsequent mailings alerting him to new tolls and his growing fines never reached him.
The total damage by the time he realized what was going on: $3,545. Less than $300 of that is for actual tolls.
When he appealed at the state Department of Transportation (DOT)’s University District office, he was told that ignorance of fines was a poor defense.
“It felt like a kangaroo court,” Livic says. “I’m culpable for not monitoring my Good-To-Go account as closely as I should. But the punishment is way out of whack for an address error that wasn’t mine.”
It used to be that a missed toll payment was like a parking ticket. You could go to a local court where an elected judge with significant leeway would hear you out.
But in 2010, the DOT requested that these cases be switched from the courts to an administrative process set up by the DOT. It enlisted administrative-law judges to staff the toll courts, but didn’t give them much flexibility on how they could rule.
Crucially, fines collected now go to the DOT. An average of $65,000 just in fines is assessed on the 520 bridge each day.
Judge Linde warned lawmakers back in 2010: You’re setting this up so DOT designs the system, issues the infractions and oversees the appeal process. Plus it gets the fine money.
“It will be anything but the independent process that citizens expect,” she said.
I’ve argued that fining people $40 for each $4 missed payment is a level of gouging you won’t see from the worst payday-loan shop. Better would be to charge no fines but attach unpaid toll bills to license-tab renewals, as they do in British Columbia. Tough but fair.
What happens now? The person who was right in the first place made a guess about that, too.
Judge Linde noted in 2010 that the inevitable class-action suit would be weighed by judges who tend to take a dim view of “tossing citizens into an administrative process.” There’s a big risk the state will lose, she said then. If so, it will put the taxpayers on the hook for “having to repay toll penalties, along with triple damages and attorneys’ fees.”
Or the state Legislature could act, now, and try to fix all this. They sure can’t say they weren’t warned.