Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Most Bridge Toll Violators Ignore Penalty Notices

by February 22nd, 2013

On the State Route 520 bridge and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge most drivers who ignore initial tolling fee bills sent through a process using mounted cameras and mailed notices are not moved to compliance after they receive a so-called Notice of Civil Penalty sent to them by the Washington State Department of Transportation. A report recently presented to the state legislature by WSDOT shows that from April though September of 2012, 170,800 or 76.8 percent of 222,300 NOCPs mailed to drivers on the two bridges were ignored. Additional data provided by the department at Public Data Ferret’s request show that 73,140 or 82.9 percent of 88,169 NOCPs issued from October through December were ignored.

The 243,940 ignored civil penalty notices tabulated for April through December of 2012 would represent almost $10 million, at $40 apiece, although processing fees can add to the cost for those who do comply. WSDOT emphasizes in its report to lawmakers that a stepped-up enforcement program for photo-toll fee scofflaws is scheduled to be fully implemented by the middle of 2013. It will include collection agency outreach, supplementing efforts already launched to deny annual vehicle license renewals for those who continue to leave their toll bills and penalty fees unpaid.

As of last month, WSDOT had identified about 13,500 vehicle owners for license holds which have been applied already or will be this year as renewal deadlines approach. Approximately 10,400 of the holds have been for failure to respond to civil penalty notices for unpaid tolls on the SR 520 bridge; 2,400 have been issued in connection with unpaid Tacoma Narrows NOCPs; and about 600 for both facilities. Some 1,500 holds have been cleared and paid, another 12,000 are active.

The SR 520 bridge is tolled on all lanes on both sides electronically, and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge southbound, electronically and via booths. On both facilities most drivers opt for an easier way to pay, through pre-paid GoodToGo accounts pegged to dashboard transponders and overhead gantries. But cars without the automated set-up which use the electronically tolled lanes have pictures automatically snapped of their license plates by mounted cameras, and billed notices sent.

Pay-by-mail rates are a flat $6 for two-axle vehicles on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and range from $2.67 to $3.79 on the SR 520 bridge. Those notices are supposed to be received by drivers about 14 days after their crossing. If the toll fees are not paid within another 15 days, another notice is sent, with a $5 reprocessing fee added to the toll charge. If by 80 days after the crossing the toll and reprocessing fee haven’t been paid, a Notice of Civil Penalty is issued which adds another $40 to the tab. Vehicle owners then have another 20 days to respond by either paying, or following WSDOT guidelines they can dispute the penalty in writing or at an in-person hearing. If the final verdict is that they must pay, they get another 10 days to do that.

Although there’s clearly room for improvement in getting toll scofflaws to pay their civil penalty fees, more than nine of ten toll transactions on both bridges are resolved prior to the civil penalty phase through either payment, dismissal or reassignment. From January through November of 2012, 94 percent of toll transactions were resolved on the SR 520 bridge and 97 percent on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, said WSDOT spokesperson Emily Pace.

The pay-by-mail program has had some operational troubles in the first year. As KING-5 TV Seattle reported, some motorists got civil penalty notices but said they never got the original bill in the mail. Another concern was that the bills were being mailed in plain white envelopes easy to discard as junk mail. WSDOT added the GoodToGo logo to the envelopes afterward.

On State Route 167 enforcement of rules for use of the single express toll lane in each direction on an eight-mile stretch is by the Washington State Patrol, not via cameras.

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