Illinois resident Dave Smithson got a bill from the state of Washington for driving across a bridge he's never seen, in a truck he never owned, in a state he's never visited. And now the state says more photo tolling is planned.
Dave Smithson lives more than 2,000 road miles from Seattle, in a suburb of St. Louis. He’s never been here, and up until the letters began arriving in January, never gave us much of a thought.
“I visited Oregon once,” he told me on the phone.
Yet Smithson, a middle-school teacher in Glen Carbon, Ill., is somehow the latest to be sucked into a bureaucratic whirlpool from which apparently no American now is safe. I’m talking, of course, about our Good to Go tolling system.
“It’s Alice in Wonderland stuff,” Smithson laughs. “And I’m from Illinois, where we’re not exactly known for good government service.”
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It started last winter, when Smithson got a bill for driving a semitruck across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge twice. At first he ignored it — because he drives a Mazda and he’d never even heard of the Narrows bridge.
But the bills, with added fines, kept coming. So eventually he called both the state and me (my name still comes up in Google searches about our Kafkaesque tolling and fine system).
What happened is that the truck had a commercial plate with the same license number, but when neither Illinois nor our state noticed the difference, the bills were sent mistakenly to Smithson. In March, a supervisor acknowledged the error and said the charges would be cleared.
“She said it’s 99 percent certain I won’t get another bill,” Smithson told me back in March.
“Give me a call when you get another bill,” I said.
Sure enough, he now has received seven bills in all, with some additional fines added. The total rose to $41.50. The latest bill threatened to add $80 in civil penalty fines and put a hold on his car plates.
Despite repeated calls to Good to Go, he couldn’t make the bills stop.
“At first it was comical — I mean I’m being tolled for a bridge I’ve never crossed, driving a semitruck I don’t own, in a state I’ve never been to,” Smithson says. “But then I started to get worried it’s going to affect my credit.”
Glitches happen. But the number of billing errors and the trouble the state has correcting them is concerning as the state ponders huge expansions in electronic tolling.
In the past six months the state and its private Texas contractor, Electronic Transaction Consultants (motto: “everything you need for life in the fast lane”), have made one whopper after another. In October 3,350 drivers were charged double for tolls on I-405. In December an additional 126,000 drivers were overcharged. And last week 8,200 drivers suddenly got invoices for nearly $1 million in tolls that were stored, but never billed, for a year.
It’s possible that we’re not quite ready to use cameras, computers and the U.S. mail to manage a hundred thousand charges per day. Some say the state does not have the customer-service chops for such a massive billing operation.
“You wouldn’t see a successful private company treat users this way,” state Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, said last week. (Though I’m wondering if the senator has ever wrangled with, say, Comcast?)
The state says it has ramped up its customer service. Since last summer, when the state finally agreed drivers might be treated as customers instead of scofflaws, it has waived $18 million worth of fines on 50,000 drivers, while collecting $2 million in tolls owed. That’s better service, though it came only after years of being pummeled with bad press.
Now more photo-tolling is planned, for at least the new Highway 99 tunnel. Also, the state is pondering replacing the gas tax with per-mile road usage charges, in which all 6.5 million licensed drivers would have transponders or phone apps so the state could bill us for how far we drive. What could go wrong?
Within a few hours of my calling the state about Mr. Smithson, Good to Go called him in Illinois and said his charges would be wiped clean. He said he was again assured he’ll never get another bill from our state.
“Well, just give me a call when you get another bill,” I cracked.
“I do think it might be a worry for you guys that I had to call a newspaper to get anyone there to listen to me,” he said.