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Originally published Thursday, October 18, 2012 at 8:51 PM

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Some toll bills going out late to 520, Narrows bridge drivers

Toll bills are going out late for 350,000 trips on the Highway 520 and Tacoma Narrows bridges, because of hiccups in the state's effort to match license plates to databases.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

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The state says it is late mailing bills for 350,000 toll-bridge trips made early this year, because of difficulty matching license plates to government databases.

About two-thirds of those crossings were made by cars registered outside Washington.

They involve "pay by mail" transactions. When a car lacks a Good to Go account to have tolls electronically deducted, tolling employees use a license-plate photo and obtain the owner's mailing address from databases in Olympia, or other states and provinces.

These crossings occurred between Dec. 29, when tolling began on the Highway 520 floating bridge, and June 30, the end of the fiscal year. The state Department of Transportation found discrepancies while reconciling the financial records, then delved into toll records to locate missed billings, state tolling director Craig Stone said.

The late bills amount to 2 percent of the 18 million tolled crossings during the first half of this year. About 250,000 were on Highway 520, and 100,000 on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

Drivers may wonder if the delay puts them at risk of taking a $40 civil penalty, charged for each tolled crossing that goes unpaid 80 days. The answer is no. The 80 days don't begin until a bill is put in the mail by DOT, said Stone.

"If you drove one of the toll bridges this year and didn't receive a bill, you'll likely receive one soon," he said in a statement. "We apologize for the delay and we are working with our vendor to ensure this won't happen again."

In many cases, Washington has had trouble establishing information agreements with other states.

California cars were missed because a toll subcontractor didn't file paperwork on time in Sacramento to establish access to the database there; Connecticut refuses to swap license records with other states; and links with Hawaii are taking a while because that state tracks vehicles separately in four island counties, said Stone.

Some Oregon and Washington plates were missed. For instance, there are four kinds of Washington State University plates, easily misclassified by tolling workers, who needed retraining, Stone said. British Columbia isn't sharing plate data for homeland-security reasons, while Ontario does.

Tolling errors have occurred around the U.S. as states launch high-tech electronic systems. In early 2011, thousands of drivers who crossed legally in Tacoma were sent citations, leading Pierce County District Court to dismiss 14,000 tickets.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @mikelindblom.

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