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Originally published June 30, 2013 at 6:36 PM | Page modified June 30, 2013 at 7:49 PM

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Bridge drivers may get easier ride in state toll court with new law

A new law, effective July 28, may give motorists better odds of challenging the state’s steep penalties for overdue toll payments.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

Tolls rise Monday

Highway 520 tolls vary by time of day, and are increasing an average 2.5 percent, rounded to the closest nickel. For cars with Good to Go passes, the morning and afternoon peak tolls are $3.70 each way across Lake Washington, a midday rate is $2.35 and weekend afternoon tolls are $2.30. A surcharge of $1.55 or $1.60 is added to cars that lack passes and are billed by mail.

At the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, tolls increase 25 cents, collected eastbound only. The new rate is $4.25 at all hours.

Full charts are at www.wsdot.wa.gov/tolling/tollrates.htm

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The state’s toll-enforcement courts, which started out in 2012 by rejecting motorists’ pleas to reduce hundreds and even thousands of dollars in penalties, might soon be showing more empathy.

On July 28, a new law will allow the judges to consider several factors when people ask for a break. Acceptable excuses include a divorce that results in a change of car ownership, a military deployment overseas, the owner’s death, an eviction or simply not receiving the original bill.

Previously, the judges were required to uphold the bills for all unpaid tolls, as well as a $5 processing fee per bill, plus a civil penalty of $40 for every bridge crossing that went unpaid after 80 days. Before the new law, failure to receive a bill was typically not an accepted excuse.

Meanwhile, tolls increase Monday. On Highway 520 they rise an average 2.5 percent, so the new peak-time rate for cars with a Good to Go transponder is $3.70 each way across Lake Washington. Tolls increase 25 cents at the Tacoma Narrows Bridge to $4.25 at all times, charged eastbound only.

The new toll-court law, House Bill 1941, was sponsored by Rep. Cyrus Habib, D-Bellevue; Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island; and Larry Springer, D-Kirkland in response to complaints about how the state Department of Transportation treats delinquent toll payers, including people whose prepaid Good to Go debit accounts run out of money.

One test case will be Jami Andersh, who recently moved from Texas to Bothell. Her records show her owing $316, mostly in late fees, for seven crossings worth $26 on the Highway 520 bridge, from May to October 2012.

Andersh says, based on her inquiries, that her initial bills were mailed to Texas, and bounced back to the toll center in Seattle, which re-mailed them to a wrong address. Her hearing is Aug. 12.

“My personal feeling is, our government in Washington is allowing residents and visitors to be extorted,” said Andersh.

She didn’t have a Good to Go transponder but was charged through a system that looks up license-plate numbers, for a surcharge of $1.50.

She says penalties piled up unknown to her until another bill came in early June. She says WashDOT finally found the right address for her, after her husband changed from Texas plates to Washington plates on their other car.

“People who have moved here, people who visit, everyone has a similar story,” says Andersh, who works at an Eastside medical center.

The state’s tolling director, Craig Stone, said judges have already been showing latitude the last few months, and he’s glad the new law will add clarity.

The extent of any new leniency isn’t clear, from statistics that were immediately available Friday.

• Based on 9,800 written challenges and in-person toll-court hearings for both 520 and Narrows crossings, judges affirmed full penalties in 5,400 cases; in 3,970 cases, some or all the penalties were dismissed; and 430 cases were rescheduled, a toll spokeswoman said.

• Only 1.4 percent or 371,000 of the 26.7 million crossings on the 520 bridge went unpaid 80 days, provoking a $40 penalty. Of those, 89,000 have been paid, 264,000 unpaid and 18,000 penalties dismissed.

Tolls on the 520 bridge began Dec. 29, 2011.

Rather than impose civil penalties, British Columbia charges a nominal interest rate for overdue tolls, then puts a hold on license-tab renewals until motorists pay up.

WashDOT holds the renewals, too — and charges a penalty.

And no, drivers who already paid full penalties in the court’s rigid era will not be eligible to apply for a rebate, Stone said.

“Our focus is on collecting the tolls,” he said. “We don’t like issuing civil penalties, but we need some sort of enforcement mechanism to make the system fair to the people who are paying the tolls.”

Nonetheless, horror stories occasionally surface. KIRO radio reported in June that a toll-court judge ordered Rebecca Porter of the University District to pay $5,147 of her $5,556 bill, after penalties piled up on her $516 in tolls, for 127 crossings.

In mid-2012, a judge ordered a 64-year-old Kirkland woman to pay more than $3,000 in penalties and tolls after her son drove repeatedly across the bridge, and each thought the other would pay, a case The Seattle Times covered.

Jami Andersh didn’t know about the new legislation, but hopes it will help her Aug. 12.

Even if the administrative- law judge waives her penalties, Andersh says that until the state’s penalty system is changed, she will avoid the 520 bridge and take “the long way” across the lake.

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

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