Toll officials crack down on violators
Electronic toll collection systems help ease highway traffic, improve safety and reduce costs for toll road operators. But, because drivers using electronic payment options do not have to stop at tollbooths to pay fares, motorists might not pay their accounts, tourists might not know how the system works, or speeders might think they can drive through undetected. As a result, toll authorities are using technologies and a variety of methods to catch drivers who fail to pay tolls.
Collectively processing approximately 2 billion transactions last year, the Atlantic City, N.J.-based E-ZPass Interagency Group (E-ZPass IAG) — a network of 22 Northeastern agencies that use the same electronic toll collection system — could sustain significant losses even with a 1 to 2 percent agency-wide loss from toll payment violations. However, toll violation enforcement differs among agencies because state license plate information is not yet shared nationwide. “What we need to look at is the ability to get reciprocal agreements [between agencies] authorized by the various legislatures,” says E-ZPass IAG Executive Director Jim Crawford. “We could then share information and administrative exercises on behalf of each other.”
Until that happens, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, a member of E-ZPass IAG, relies on cameras at toll plazas to capture license plate information of cars that fail to pay the fares. The commission sends out up to four violation notices with fines increasing by $30 each time, after which if a violator still has not paid, the account is turned over to the state attorney general. “We try to have leniency with first-time violators, and we have an appeals process,” says Carl DeFebo, manager of media relations and public relations for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.
On average, more than 3,000 unpaid toll transactions occur daily at seven toll facilities operated by the Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA), and nearly 1,500 accounts are held by chronic violators, says Teri Moss, operations and public safety manager for MDTA, also an E-ZPass IAG member. Last year, MDTA formed an Electronic Toll Enforcement Unit to crack down on habitual abusers and help collect unpaid fees. The unit equipped vehicles with license plate recognition technology, which uses cameras and character recognition software to identify repeat violators as they pass through toll lanes. Audible alerts notify officers, who can stop the offending drivers. “We [routinely send the units to] our toll plazas in an effort to get out the word that we are cracking down on these types of violators,” Moss says.
The Florida Department of Transportation must contend with a large number of tourists who fail to pay tolls simply because they are not familiar with the state’s SunPass electronic toll collection system, says Sonyha Rodriquez-Miller, spokesperson for the Florida Turnpike Enterprise (FTE). In September, FTE contracted with Scottsdale, Ariz.-based American Traffic Solutions and Plano, Texas-based Rent A Toll to provide electronic toll payment systems to major car rental agencies. When rental car drivers pass through the designated toll lanes, their fees are paid electronically, and the drivers are billed for the tolls plus a processing fee. The program is easing confusion for tourists and improving toll collection, Rodriquez-Miller says.
Indiana is establishing its enforcement policy as it installs its electronic tolling system, which is expected to be fully operational by the end of this summer, says Matt Pierce, director of communications and government relations for the Indiana Toll Road Concession Co., an E-ZPass IAG member. The new system will record license plate numbers and send violators invoices if they drive through an electronic toll lane in error.
Pierce says a violation database of the small percentage of willful offenders should be established. He also suggests that the states build a cooperative system to foster enforcement. “People who don’t pay tolls in one state won’t do it in another,” he says.
Annie Gentile is a Vernon, Conn.-based freelance writer.