Thousands of toll violators caught a break from Washington state’s new second-chance law that lets people avoid heavy fines of $40 per trip — but people who already paid appear to be stuck with their losses.
The state’s nicer policy toward late tollpayers has created thousands of winners and thousands of losers.
Matt Mclaughlin, a medical assistant who used to cross the Tacoma Narrows Bridge to drive to school, recently got the state’s OK to forget about the $6,300 he’d accumulated in penalties for unpaid tolls.
“I’m happy. I can kind of not have to worry every day,” he says, now that his record is clear to let him get new car tabs. “The most miserable thing was always being worried about being pulled over.”
Seeking toll-penalty forgiveness
Most drivers who owe the state civil penalties for unpaid tolls can now get those waived, and pay only the amount of the overdue tolls.
• Call 1-866-936-8246.
• Dispute the fines by mail, using a form the state will include with penalty notices.
• 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 St. 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.
Typically, staff encourage drivers to set up a GoodtoGo debit account to automatically collect tolls, usually via a windshield-mounted transponder. Otherwise, a camera photographs license plates, and drivers receive a mailed bill plus surcharges of at least $1.60 per trip, on cars lacking GoodtoGo accounts.
More information: wsdot.wa.gov/GoodToGo/nocp.htm
Bill Barraugh, meanwhile, made good on what he owed, last year paying the state $1,200 in penalties for unpaid tolls on the Highway 520 bridge.
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“To get back even half of it would be nice,” Barraugh said.
Their stories represent just two among thousands of people affected by Washington state’s new toll-enforcement rules. People who paid their civil penalties earlier are stuck with their losses, while people who waited are catching a break.
After three years of shaking off tales of misery from motorists, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) on July 20 declared an era of second chances, which will also benefit people who make mistakes using new toll lanes that open Sept. 27 on Interstate 405.
The new policy, based on a state law, offers forgiveness of unpaid civil penalties, if someone contacts customer service. It’s a nice break, as the penalties are $40 a crossing, or tenfold the actual tolls, for trips that go unpaid for 80 days.
As of Aug. 31, some 125,000 violations have been dismissed on 9,500 vehicles, saving people $4.4 million in penalties, WSDOT reported. At the same time, about $100,000 in back tolls were paid.
“That’s a good thing. They’re paying the toll, they’re being educated and hopefully we don’t have them back with more notices of civil penalties,” said Patty Rubstello, toll-operations director.
Vehicle owners can get the penalties wiped clean — and be allowed to renew their license tabs — with a phone call or visit to a service center, provided they pay the late tolls in 20 days. The program is permanent.
The state isn’t offering refunds, except for those who lost a toll-court case this year between Feb. 19 and July 20.
Since the case was filed in January, about 100 people have contacted lawyers suing WSDOT, said attorney Catherine Clark. Anyone eligible for a potential toll-penalty refund will be notified if the case progresses. Her firm may be reached at 206-838-2528 or loccc.com
Some drivers who previously paid are grumbling, and a class-action lawsuit against WSDOT has been filed on their behalf, demanding their money be given back.
“What you’re doing is punishing the good drivers, by not providing them an out. That’s not reasonable, and that’s not fair,” said attorney Catherine Clark.
That’s a big group.
About 2.5 percent of all trips wind up gathering penalties, state reports say. Owners of 250,000 vehicles have paid $21.3 million in penalties for Highway 520 crossings and $5 millionfor the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, from January 2012 through June 2015, said toll spokesman Ethan Bergerson.
Asked why WSDOT won’t give refunds, Rubstello said the state needed to set some kind of cutoff period.
“How we’re looking at it is, like any other kind of regulation, there’s an effective date,” she said.
She compared the situation to buying a car, then missing out when the dealership launches a rebate program later.
The second-chance policy arrived just in time to avert a bureaucratic disaster for the new I-405 Express Toll Lanes, to open Sept. 27 from Lynnwood to Bellevue. The lanes will allow solo drivers to pay tolls for a fast trip in the carpool lanes, and carpoolers must obtain a new “FlexPass” to drive there free.
“I foresee a steep learning curve for the public,” said Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, prime sponsor of the second-chance law. “If we didn’t give to the tolling authority more discretion and loosen the reins a bit, there was going to be a terrible rollout.”
Catching a break
Mclaughlin said he crossed the Narrows Bridge to attend school in Tacoma, lost his retail job and couldn’t afford tolls. He assumed he’d wind up charged double the toll price, and could pay it post-graduation.
Then a series of letters showed up, listing $40 penalties, and $5 administrative fees. He drove to work with expired car tabs.
When the second-chance program began in July, he made a couple phone calls to erase the debt, leaving only $624 in actual tolls.
Another byproduct of more leniency is fewer people wind up in stressful administrative toll-court hearings.
The lone person on a docket one day last month was a man from Shoreline, facing fines from trips last winter. He already appeared in toll court in July, and previously paid $128. (The state has often applied cash payments to penalties first, which can leave tolls unpaid and trigger more penalties.)
“I did pay the original fee already,” he told the judge, Kathleen Lovejoy, who offered him the chance to settle accounts in the lobby, with a customer-service employee.
“Is that a given?” he said in disbelief that the system might help him.
A woman in a green GoodtoGo polo shirt looked into the computer, and managed to “reapply” his earlier payment, to cover just the missed tolls. He’s getting an $82.55 refund check.
The state left a small opening for drivers who already lost a toll-court case to ask for a rehearing, by bringing new evidence.
“It won’t be automatic,” said Anita Crawford-Willis, a supervisor and judge with the state Office of Administrative Hearings. People would need to show documents to justify mitigation, she said. A previous reform, in mid-2013, allowed toll violators to cite a divorce, military service or an incorrect billing address, as defenses to seek mitigation. About one-fourth of fines were being waived.
Swearing off toll lanes
Barraugh,a Woodinville businessman, said a car he owns made $80 worth of floating-bridge crossings last year for employee trips and his wife’s medical appointments.
He said he didn’t receive an initial bill, but got later notices. He said he visited toll court and ultimately paid $1,200, so the state would let him renew his car tabs.
“I could afford it,” he said, but was mad at what he saw as injustice. “For the single mom of three who had to pay $3,000 or lose her car, that was devastating.”
Barraugh vows not to use the new I-405 toll lanes; he will drive around Lake Washington instead, for fear of inadvertently piling up fines.
Then there’s the class-action suit, which alleges WSDOT violated due process by often failing to notify car owners, and it violated consumer law by doing so in an unfair or deceptive manner.
Clark said the $40 violates state constitutional language that “excessive bail shall not be required, excessive fines imposed, nor cruel punishment inflicted,” though she doesn’t argue that in the lawsuit.
Much like WSDOT, other states have seen penalties pile up — and go mostly unpaid — in the age of electronic tolling.
Massachusetts DOT gave amnesty to more than 10,000 violators at Boston’s Tobin Bridge this June, angering drivers who had paid already, WBZ television reported.
Louisiana waived penalties during a period when toll-processing malfunctioned on its Crescent City Connection bridge in 2013, while Georgia discounted Highway 400 toll-skipping penalties from $25 to $15 per trip in 2010.
Some toll agencies employ a three-strikes rule that won’t charge penalties or begin collection efforts until after multiple violations, said Neil Gray, director of government affairs for the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.
Hill, the state senator, said his bill didn’t offer refunds retroactively because of logistical difficulties such as expensive change orders with Electronic Transaction Consultants, the toll-collection vendor.
WSDOT’s bond financing doesn’t require the $40 civil penalty to pay for the new 520 bridge. The contracts only require effective toll enforcement. Rubstello seems glad to turn down the pressure.
“Collecting the toll is what we want,” she said.