Craig Johnson thought the 1992 Volvo his family had driven for years was in the rearview mirror.
The Fox Island resident transferred ownership of the car to his son in 2012, who in turn sold it the following year.
“He sold it to a State Patrol lieutenant, who bought it for his daughter to drive,” Johnson told The News Tribune recently.
Imagine Johnson’s surprise then when a $26 toll bill, charged to the Volvo, arrived in his mail this past November.
He thought a simple telephone call would straighten things out.
Not so much.
Earlier this month, he received notice of civil fines related to the unpaid tolls. Cost: $146.
Four months later, Johnson is frustrated with the state’s Good to Go program and has serious misgivings about how the state departments of transportation and licensing communicate with each other.
“You would think that two closely related state agencies, DOT and DOL, would have better sharing of records,” he said. “On my first call, they should have been able to look up that license plate and see that car no longer belongs to me.”
DOT and DOL officials told the News Tribune they work well together and said what happened to Johnson is the exception, not the rule.
“Things don’t go wrong all that often,” DOL spokesman Brad Benfield said.
Meredith McNamee is a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation, which administers the Good to Go tolling program.
McNamee pointed out that Narrows Bridge tolling equipment records about 43,000 transactions per day.
“Equipment must capture images of both the front and rear plates for 99 percent of vehicles, and the accuracy requirement is 90 percent for the software that automatically identifies a vehicle’s license plate, but on average we see a higher percentage identified correctly,” she said.
A “unique” set of circumstances led up to Johnson’s frustrations, McNamee said.
After his son sold the Volvo, it was issued a new plate and registered to the new owner, she said.
Bad things started happening when a visitor from the Midwest drove across the Narrows Bridge a few times last fall.
“A vehicle from Minnesota with the same plate number as Mr. Johnson’s old Volvo plate used tolling facilities last year, and our equipment read it as a Washington plate,” McNamee said. “When our vendor contacted DOL to get the registration information for what it thought was a Washington plate, DOL provided the registered owner on file for that plate: Mr. Johnson.”
The toll bill then went out, and Johnson’s struggles began.
There is a procedure in place for disputing a toll bill for a vehicle that’s been sold.
“Vehicle owners must provide Good To Go with a copy of the official report of sale from the Department of Licensing stating that the vehicle was sold at the time of toll transaction,” according to the Good to Go website.
Johnson said he did just that about three days after receiving the toll bill, visiting the Good to Go office in Gig Harbor to present his documents.
“A long wait, no apologies, but assurances that it would be resolved,” he said.
A worker there told him things should be straightened out and to ignore any subsequent bills, Johnson said. One came in January, which he said he disregarded.
Then on March 10, the $146 civil-penalty notice arrived.
“It escalated,” Johnson said.
More phone calls and more emailing ensued.
Johnson decided to tell his story to The News Tribune last week, saying he hoped to bring the problem to the public’s attention.
“How many people sell cars?” he said. “It’s got to be happening to other folks.”
Benfield, the DOL spokesman, said he’s heard of similar cases happening a few times a year.
“Sometimes it takes some time to work out,” he said.
McNamee told the News Tribune last week that Johnson’s problem has been rectified.
“Mr. Johnson’s civil penalty was resolved March 13,” she said. “We have flagged the plate in our system so that when it is read in the future Mr. Johnson will not be billed.”
Johnson said he’s dubious about the out-of-state plate explanation and not happy that it’s taken so long to resolve the issue.
“My reply is that this has taken over four months to resolve and should have been a simple matter to resolve during my first phone call to Good to Go about this issue,” he said.