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Monday, August 27, 2012 - Page updated at 08:30 p.m.
Toll court shows little mercy to Highway 520 drivers
By Mike Lindblom
Seattle Times transportation reporter
The launch of electronic tolling on Highway 520 has generated a new kind of justice in Washington state — a toll court where most drivers can expect to lose when they challenge their penalties.
They've missed or ignored toll bills for at least 80 days, triggering an automatic $40 fine for each unpaid crossing.
A 64-year-old Kirkland woman went to toll court but still wound up writing checks for more than $3,000, for 65 crossings. She said her son usually drove on the floating bridge, and each thought the other would handle the toll bill. After her hearing, she admitted mistakes but called the punishment egregious.
"It's a new system, and I think we [institutions] sometimes get simple-minded when we design systems in the beginning," she said, before driving away in an old brown car. "I don't think it's people-friendly."
A middle-aged man, held liable for $1,440 in tolls and fines, vented to Judge Barbara Harris: "That's like Iron Curtain, Stalinist, draconian-type legislation that doesn't make any sense to me."
Toll courts opened May 4 in Seattle's University District and in Fife, where administrative-law judges handle about 250 written and oral cases per week. By law, toll-court judges cannot reduce or dismiss a motorist's penalty, unless they rule that a toll or a fine was charged incorrectly. This makes toll court less flexible than municipal courts, where folks with a compelling story might sway a magistrate.
"We want to collect the tolls," says Craig Stone, toll director for the state Department of Transportation. "We have enforcement, to be fair to the people who pay the tolls."
Three-fourths of the time, drivers at toll court have walked away without any reductions whatsoever. But judges have canceled fines when drivers put money in a Good to Go toll account within days of crossing the bridge, if the car was sold or stolen, and when a motorist shipped off to war in Afghanistan.
It's easy to rack up fines, as occurred on 95,471 floating-bridge trips between the launch of electronic tolls Dec. 29 and the first wave of penalty notices April 30. In May and June 1,814 motorists opted to have an oral or written hearing, and in 1,371 cases judges affirmed the full penalty.
To add leverage, DOT says it is sending the Department of Licensing a request to block 7,800 car owners from buying their 2013 car tabs, starting with the December renewals, until their tolls and fines are paid.
Most toll crossings are uneventful.
A full 81 percent of trips across the 520 bridge use Good to Go windshield transponders, which deduct money from a prepaid-debit account, or drivers arranged to pay online. Others are billed by mail, after their license plates are photographed and matched to a home address.
Only 1.5 percent of the bridge trips made during the first four months lapsed into penalties. At the Tacoma Narrows, where drivers are used to tolls and have the option of paying cash at a toll booth, only 0.5 percent of trips resulted in penalties.
Stone said on-time payment here is better than many states, because of a local ethic of stewardship.
Toll enforcement is changing to keep up with open-road tolling, which tracks cars electronically at highway speed, rather than subjecting drivers to a stop at a booth or gate.
Highway 520 and other high-tech tolling routes make it easy to drive through without paying — therefore, you need a deterrent on the billing end to ensure tolls are collected, said Neil Gray, government-affairs director for the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.
Most of the nation's 110 toll authorities still use the old system of traffic citations, rather than administrative-toll court, says Gray. But in Washington, you'll be hounded by toll staff and a collection agency instead of the State Patrol.
There have been some growing pains in the new system. Some mistakenly think the $40 late penalty applies to the entire bill, not each crossing. That's understandable, because the warning about civil penalties, in fine print on back of the bill, is vaguely worded.
Some drivers say they mistook the billing envelopes for junk mail, until the state responded by adding a green Good to Go logo in June.
Others say they never received their bills in the mail, not an excuse judges accept.
Stone emphasizes DOT wants to treat drivers as customers, and penalties are necessary to deter those who might habitually take free trips.
But DOT's own data — the average judgment at toll hearings is $166 — suggest the penalties tend to fall on ordinary people who lapse a few times.
Emily Flanagan, of North Seattle, says she wasted a morning in toll court, where her $95 bill for two trips was upheld. She says she never got the bills by mail, then learned of her $40 late fees by happenstance, while she visited the U District service center to feed the Good to Go account on her husband's car. Then after her hearing Aug. 2, she went to pay at the counter — where she discovered that state toll records flagged the mailed bills as undeliverable, she says.
"I messed up, I get a slap on the wrist, fine," she said. "But there were others in that courtroom with me today who hadn't paid the toll in the first place, because they were having trouble making ends meet."
Asked if the Kirkland mom's $3,000 penalty was too harsh, state transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said, "I don't see how you rack up that kind of debt without knowing it. We're trying to be consistent, fair, equitable and responsible in our toll collections, so eventually we will have enough dollars to pay our [own] debt."
The state sold $519 million in toll-backed 520 bonds last fall, on the road to $1.7 billion in toll-supported debt financing to help pay for the still-underfunded $4.65 billion Highway 520 replacement.
Operating a separate toll court would save $6 million a year that WSDOT would otherwise spend reimbursing King County and Pierce County courts for them to deal with toll cases, Stone told an industry convention in Atlanta.
The $40 penalty is a bureaucratic vestige, passed by lawmakers in 2010, based on a stipend DOT formerly paid Pierce County District Court to process traffic tickets at the Narrows. (The old citations were $52 at Narrows, reflecting a $4 toll, an $8 penalty, and $40 court costs.)
Legislators didn't spend much time discussing the $40 figure for the 520 bridge, said House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island. Mainly, members were happy about creating an 80-day grace period to pay, rather than hitting drivers with an instant traffic ticket.
"We were being kinder and gentler," she said.
Stone insists $40 is fair, comparable to a $44 parking fine in Seattle, while national expert Gray said penalties here are in the "low to mid-range."
The Atlanta-area toll network charges up to $95 in fees and fines per unpaid trip. Austin charges up to $60 in penalties for all unpaid trips in a given 15-day period.
But in Denver — which WashDOT used as a model — officials are easing off the throttle. Fines and fees that used to reach $70 per trip are being slashed this month, so they max out at $70 per vehicle over a nine-month period.
British Columbia TransLink doesn't use civil penalties at the Golden Ears Bridge. Drivers owe $4 million, but officials are content to wait to collect tolls plus interest when drivers renew their car tabs. "We're trying to make it as attractive as possible for people to cross the bridge," said spokesman Drew Snider.
Last month, the North Texas Tollway Authority in Dallas went so far as to publish a list of 25,000 motorists who had accrued at least 100 unpaid tolls, topped by a woman owing $180,000. Washington state has perhaps the nation's strongest confidentiality laws to protect toll payers, so officials say a scofflaw list is unimaginable here.
Stone rejects any insinuation the state sneaked up on motorists. He called a news conference in mid-April to warn the $40 penalties were coming soon, and says the agency sent a third notice to people with high overdue balances, before the 80-day deadline kicked in.
"If you get a toll bill, respect it," he advises.
Or drivers can visit Goodtogo.com, launch an account online or in person, then keep it well stocked — to avoid the paper chase altogether.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or email@example.com. On Twitter @mikelindblom.
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