Starting this week, the state will offer one-time forgiveness to drivers who rack up civil penalties of $40 for failing to pay toll bills on time.
After three years of enforcing overdue fees of $40 per unpaid toll, the state is offering drivers a second chance when they don’t pay their Highway 520 or Tacoma Narrows Bridge tolls on time.
Thousands of people have faced civil penalties since the current electronic toll system began at the end of 2011, and the state estimates there are 300,000 vehicles right now whose drivers owe unpaid penalties and tolls.
But most people who’ve already paid their penalty won’t get refunds, the state says.
Settling up on 520 and Narrows bridges
Drivers who owe the state $40 civil penalties for late toll payment can now get those waived. Read a fact sheet here.
• Call 1-866-936-8246 to explain the situation and arrange to pay just the toll portion.
• Dispute the fines by mail, using a form the state will include with its penalty notices. This started Monday.
• Visit a customer-service center: in Seattle at 4554 Ninth Ave. N.E.; in Bellevue at 13107 N.E. 20th St., Suites 3 and 4; and in Gig Harbor at 3212 50th Street Court N.W., Suite 200. Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday.
Under the new law, which took effect Monday, drivers can get their civil penalties waived one time if they arrange to pay off their tolls. Or they can establish a Good to Go debit account that electronically collects the toll using a vehicle-mounted chip, so there’s no need to mail the driver a bill.
It’s not really an amnesty. Unlike a temporary reprieve, the new policy is permanent, for the sake of newcomers who drive through a toll area and miss a bill, said Patty Rubstello, toll-operations director for the Washington State Department of Transportation.
“That first time, we want to help them, educate them, collect the toll, and hopefully that puts them in a better place next time they use our facilities,” she said.
The law, Senate Bill 5481 sponsored by Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, calls the first-time forgiveness “an educational opportunity.”
Another reason is the Interstate 405 expansion, to start late this year, where one- or two-person vehicles can pay a toll to use the uncrowded high-occupancy lanes, saving minutes between Lynnwood and Bellevue. That means thousands more drivers will face toll bills. Without some leniency, many drivers would wind up with civil penalties as they encounter the new toll lanes and rules.
Civil penalties do not apply on Highway 167, where solo drivers can pay to use the HOV lanes.
Under the new law, the first time a vehicle owner owes penalties, a simple phone call or visit within 20 days should erase them — but the toll portion must be paid before the state will renew license tabs.
The second time, WSDOT will require the motorist to establish an electronic Good to Go account, or else the civil penalties would be retained.
If there’s a third time, the motorist would have to see a toll-court judge to ask for the penalties to be waived.
The new law was praised by attorney Catherine Clark, who filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of penalized drivers who are demanding refunds. About 100 people have joined the suit, but Clark said the real purpose was to change the toll regime on behalf of the state’s motorists.
“ I couldn’t be more pleased that people are being relieved of a situation that has caused financial terror for so many people,” Clark said.
Those 300,000 currently delinquent accounts involve $10.8 million in unpaid tolls, and $78.7 million more in civil penalties and administrative fees, Rubstello said.
So the average vehicle owner owes about $300, mostly in penalties.
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The new law doesn’t apply to vehicle owners who paid off their bills or lost their challenges in toll court before Feb. 19, said toll spokeswoman Patty Michaud. However, there is a provision that allows a judge to review a past case.
It’s fairly easy to get in trouble for failure to pay toll bills within 80 days.
Car owners might move without updating a mailing address in the state licensing database, so bills don’t arrive. They might misunderstand or ignore the bills. They might fail to stock enough money in a Good to Go account. Or they might sell a car and be billed for trips the new owner made.
“We had a customer today who had her mail stolen, for months,” Rubstello said. “We were able to help her and get her on her way.”
The new law is designed to prevent what happened to Scott Tourville, of Redmond, two years ago.
He said he changed debit cards but forgot to file the numbers with Good to Go, and a few dozen 520 trips mushroomed into $2,500 in tolls and penalties.
He said police pulled him over for expired tabs, after he lost in toll court and the state put a hold on his car-license renewal.
Tourville said he finally sold personal items to pay off the bill, and still crosses the bridge four days a week.
“I think it’s a corrupt system. They’re just trying to get money out of people. But I’ve paid off my account. It’s behind me. Now I watch it like a hawk,” he said.
“I’d be really happy for people to not have to go through what I went through.”