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July 31, 2014

Tollbooth Scofflaws Have Become Multimillion-Dollar Headaches

490534117 web 445x296 Tollbooth Scofflaws Have Become Multimillion Dollar Headaches

President Barack Obama speaks at the Tappan Zee Bridge in May. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

Human toll collectors are becoming a vanishing breed as states and highway authorities increasingly move to all-electronic tolling, or AET. But the new technology comes with its own costs.

With AET, a driver either has a transponder (such as E-ZPass) in the vehicle, or monitoring stations photograph his license plate and the tolling authority mails a bill to the address on the vehicle’s registration.

And when a car doesn’t have to stop, it’s apparently easier to roll up a big tab.

As Gannett’s Journal News, which covers the Lower Hudson Valley in New York, reported last week, “Toll-dodging drivers on the Henry Hudson Bridge [which connects the New York City boroughs of the Bronx and Manhattan] have racked up an eye-popping $23.6 million in debt between November 2012 through March 2014.”

The unpaid total in New York includes $2.2 million in unpaid tolls and $21.4 million in late fees and violation charges.

AET saves time and money — no more old-fashioned toll plazas at which drivers stop and idle, and no more toll collectors whose salaries and benefits must be paid over decades of service — but toll-road authorities need to put resources toward ensuring that people pay up, said Robert Poole, director of Transportation Policy at the Reason Foundation.

“All-electronic tolling definitely requires stepped-up enforcement, especially if many of the customers do not have transponders and pre-paid accounts, and must therefore be billed based on their license plate information,” Poole said Tuesday.

To that end, a New York state lawmaker has proposed legislation to suspend vehicle registrations if owners fail to respond to five toll-due notices.

Such legal authority already “exists in a few states, but will need to become widespread as the United States moves toward nationwide inter-operability of electronic tolling systems,” Poole said.

Poole reports in his latest monthly newsletter that the Massachusetts Department of Transportation is getting ready to convert all toll facilities in the state to AET, while the Florida Turnpike Enterprise last month completed the conversion of the Veterans Expressway near Tampa to AET. (Poole said the world’s first all-electronic toll road was Highway 407 ETR in Toronto.)

There are other consequences when drivers are delinquent with toll money. The New York newspaper also noted that non-payers are a cause for concern for the New York State Thruway Authority because it plans to use toll revenue from the Tappan Zee Bridge – spanning the Hudson River — to pay for a $3.9 billion Tappan Zee replacement project.

“The current Tappan Zee is set for completely cashless tolling next year to ease traffic flow during construction of the new span. The new bridge is expected to have all-electronic toll collection,” the paper said.

And what about out-of-state vehicles? They pose a more complicated problem.

“Not all states readily share their DMV lookups,” noted Neil Gray, the director of government affairs at the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association. He said that some states only share their Department of Motor Vehicle information in cases where there has been an alleged violation of driving or traffic laws – such as drunk driving or a driver hitting a pedestrian.

But some states are working together. Gray said in 2011, New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts set up a reciprocal process that each would impose on its vehicle owners whatever penalties apply in that state for persistent non-payment of tolls, so that, for example, if a New Hampshire driver were not paying the tolls he owed for driving on the Maine Turnpike, New Hampshire would impose its penalty on him until the debt was repaid.

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