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Originally published Saturday, October 13, 2012 at 8:03 PM

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State turns a 520 bridge toll bill into paradox

Pam Hammond's failure to pay a toll bill she never received put her in violation of Kafkaesque state rules.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Pam Hammond went across the 520 bridge to get to the other side. But she detoured into bureaucracy's version of a metaphysical thought experiment.

If a toll falls on you but nobody bills you for it, does it still exist?

State government's answer to that question, you won't be surprised to learn, is yes. But as Hammond found out, you can also owe sizable civil penalties if you are such a scofflaw as to not pay a bill you never got.

Hammond lives in Mukilteo and rarely uses the Highway 520 bridge, which has featured photo tolling since January. Last May she crossed the bridge and assumed she'd get one of those $3 to $5 toll bills in the mail, as she had twice before.

But last month, a different notice arrived from the state. It was a $40 fine for not paying for the May crossing. With fees, including the original toll, her total charge for one bridge trip had ballooned to $50.

But she never got a bill for the original toll. When she called, the state confirmed their records showed the bills had not reached her. Though her address was correct, for reasons unknown the bills had been returned to the state by the post office.

Oh well, Hammond figured. No harm done. I'll pay the toll and appeal the $40 fine. Surely the state won't fine me for late payment on a bill they admit I never got? Even the most rapacious credit-card companies are flexible on late fees, she remembered thinking.

But then credit-card companies don't enjoy anywhere near the monopoly power of state government.

It turns out when the state set up the photo tolling system last year, it wrote payment and collection rules that would impress Kafka:

"Registered vehicle owners are responsible for paying tolls and the civil penalty whether or not they received a toll bill," the rules say. "It is not a defense to a toll violation and notice of civil penalty that the person did not know to pay a toll."

Now with the toll itself that policy makes some sense. You crossed the bridge, you owe the toll, which Hammond doesn't dispute. But the fine? It's not her fault she didn't get a bill. There's even proof the bills never reached her. Why is she being fined forty bucks?

When I called the state tolling people, they confirmed that not getting a bill is no excuse for not paying. In fact, they aren't required to send out bills at all. It's basically doing us a favor.

"The bill is a courtesy notice — there's nothing in state law that says a bill has to come to you," said Lucinda Broussard, toll operations manager for the Washington Department of Transportation. "Drivers know it's a tolled bridge. So ultimately the driver is responsible to pay the toll."

She said if you don't get a bill, it's on you to call the state before you get fined, which happens automatically after 80 days.

Hammond said she feels gouged. It's not realistic to expect drivers to notice weeks after crossing the bridge that they weren't billed, then call the state to ask for one. The Good to Go passes may solve this problem for regular commuters, but most drivers who seldom take the bridge don't have the passes.

Plus the fine is $40 for each unpaid toll — whether you ever got a bill or not.

"I'm lucky I crossed only once," Hammond said.

Seriously, state of Washington — is it your goal to get us to stay away from that toll bridge?

In Vancouver, B.C., they have a similar photo-tolling system. Except you settle any unpaid tolls when you renew your car tabs. And there are no fines. A spokesman up there told The Seattle Times the reason for that is, "We're trying to make it as attractive as possible for people to cross the bridge."

Here? We're trying to suck as much money as possible out of anyone who hasn't already switched to crossing the lake on I-90 instead.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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