Toll turmoil let many cross Tacoma Narrows for free in 2011
Chances are good if you crossed the Tacoma Narrows Bridge last year without paying a toll, no one was the wiser.
Tolling on the bridge was beset by so many problems that after a new state contractor took over in February 2011, most infractions filed with Pierce County District Court the rest of the year were dismissed, court statistics show.
In addition, the contractor nullified tens of thousands of infractions because problems prevented it from mailing them on time. This purge not only cleared drivers who were incorrectly slapped with $52 infractions but likely scofflaws – those who accidentally crossed without paying and those who did so willfully.
“People who violated aren’t going to pay,” said Patrick O’Malley, presiding judge for the district court, which collected the fines and heard appeals.
More than 76,700 infractions were filed between March 1 and early December. In total, 70,000 infractions stemming from unpaid crossings from mid-February to early December were dismissed, its statistics show. The court couldn’t provide the exact number from the February changeover date.
Department of Transportation tolling director Craig Stone acknowledged some violators were likely missed.
“For those that did purposely drive across the bridge (without paying), did their odds increase in not getting an (infraction)? Probably during that period,” he said.
But Stone questioned whether more drivers escaped infractions during this period than otherwise would have. Even a properly working tolling system can miss violations, he said; for instance, photos of license plates used to identify violators are sometimes unreadable and tossed out.
He and other officials discussed whether drivers would take advantage of last year’s highly publicized rough transition to a new bridge contractor. They don’t believe that happened, he said, because the number of Good to Go! and tollbooth transactions held steady.
Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, said tollpayers who paid faithfully last year should be disappointed that WSDOT and its contractor didn’t quickly identify and fix the problems, instead letting a series of glitches paralyze the system and allow violators off the hook.
“To me it was just one complication after another,” he said.
Public confidence in the system is more important than ever as bridge users will soon be asked to pay more. A citizen advisory commission last week recommended an extra 90 cents for electronic tolls, $1 more for the tollbooth and an additional $1.50 for pay-by-mail.
The toll hikes are due to long-planned increases in debt payments on the bridge construction; they’re not related to last year’s glitches. The state is in discussion with the bridge contractor to collect lost revenue so tollpayers aren’t bearing the cost.
Pierce County District Court ended its involvement with infractions in early December when the state moved to pay-by-mail photo tolling, a different way to enforce tolls after the fact.
State lawmakers ordered this change before the new contractor took over tolling, but the start date was delayed for months because of the technical problems.
The troubles emerged one final time last month when the court dismissed the remaining 14,000 infractions. O’Malley, the presiding judge, wrote to WSDOT that his decision stemmed from the large number of infractions being filed and the court not receiving sufficient or reliable information to deal with them.
The contractor, Texas-based Electronic Transaction Consultants Corp., declined an interview request last week but in a short statement said, “There were numerous extenuating circumstances surrounding the (infraction) issues, including many outside of ETC’s control or responsibility. ETC will take responsibility for those elements that were within our control and responsibility and are working with WSDOT to resolve the situation appropriately.”
ETC took over tolling on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge on Feb. 13, 2011, so that the state could save money under a unified system. Tolls are also collected on the state Route 167 HOT lanes and, since December, on the state Route 520 floating bridge.
The mailing of infraction notices was stopped temporarily so ETC had time to take the reins from TransCore, the old tolling contractor. TransCore still owns the equipment to read the windshield passes and take pictures of license plates. ETC needs it to withdraw money from electronic toll accounts and to mail out infractions.
If the tolling system can’t automatically withdraw money from an account using the windshield pass, a bridge crossing is flagged as a potential infraction. ETC then examines a license plate to match it to an account. Failing that, it asks the state Department of Licensing to look up the name and address of the registered owner from the photo to match it to an account.
ETC had to increasingly rely on license plate images last year because TransCore’s equipment couldn’t read the new generation of windshield passes. This led to months of negotiations between the state and TransCore before the new readers were installed in September.
From the very beginning, ETC had problems mailing the infraction notices. TransCore was unable to send daily photos of license plates to ETC until about two months after the changeover, according to a letter from an ETC official obtained by The News Tribune.
Another delay occurred when the Washington State Patrol had trouble accessing ETC’s system. (The State Patrol gets involved in cases when no account turns up or there’s an insufficient balance. A cadet must review and issue the infractions before it’s mailed to the registered owner.)
By mid-April, ETC had mailed only 50 infraction notices. By comparison, an average of about 9,300 had been mailed each month before ETC took over.
Another hiccup cropped up from mid-April to mid-May. ETC had to dismiss 4,400 infractions during that period because the Department of Licensing initially provided information about the legal owner of a vehicle rather than the registered owner, according to the court.
The delays were costing money. State law requires that infractions be mailed within 60 days of the date of the unpaid crossing or they’re tossed.
As of May 5, 30,621 potential infractions had been wiped out due to the 60-day rule, according to another document reviewed by The News Tribune.
ETC resumed mailing infractions in mid-May, but WSDOT put a stop to it June 1 after many Good to Go! customers complained they were receiving infractions despite having a balance in their account. The state and contractor later determined the system wasn’t automatically replenishing electronic toll accounts with less than $8 in them.
A bigger problem was that account information read from the pass and image of the license plate was separated when TransCore’s equipment sent it to ETC’s toll nerve center.
“It basically went directly into the violation process,” Stone explained.
He said WSDOT is still trying to determine whether the error was caused by how TransCore sent the data or how ETC processed it.
As a result, ETC dismissed 30,000 infraction notices filed with Pierce County District Court between mid-May and mid-June.
After the contractor resumed mailing infractions in September, the court dismissed another 21,600 infractions at ETC’s request. The contractor had actually requested more dismissals, but the court found they were for duplicates and infractions that were never filed in the first place, court administrator Chuck Ramey said.
Stone said last week that WSDOT doesn’t know why those infractions were dismissed.
“That’s something we’re still researching,” he said.
NEW SYSTEM IN PLACE
WSDOT withheld from ETC a total of $240,000 in contract payments from July to December to cover money lost from dismissed or invalid infractions. It may seek additional revenue stemming from the infraction tie-ups, Stone said. It’s also seeking another $396,000 in lost toll revenue due to problems and delays, he said.
On Dec. 3, the era of infraction notices ended with the launch of photo tolling, after months of delay. This new way of collecting from violators means that people who didn’t pay at the tollbooth or electronically receive a $5.50 toll in the mail instead of a $52 fine.
Drivers can contest the bill. Drivers who don’t pay after 80 days receive a $40 penalty in addition to the toll and late fee. The first penalties will be mailed March 19, and the first appeal hearings before judges in Fife and Seattle begin in early April.
Stone said while it’s still early, photo tolling has been running smoothly.
“We pleased that notice of infractions are behind us,” he said.
Christian Hill: 253-274-7390