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Enforcement ensures equity for toll road users

First publishedin ITS International
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Truckers benefit from electronic tolling
Truckers benefit from electronic tolling but by using a delinquent account one truck company racked up a $1m bill

All-electronic tolling boosts traffic flow but introduces the tricky question of enforcement. Workable solutions are starting to emerge. 

Enforcement is an essential part of tolling and one of the most important ways for a mobility agency to keep faith with its investors, its community stakeholders and the vast majority of its users. It can also be one of the most unpopular and contentious things a toll authority has to undertake.

If tolling is about paying for the roads, then everyone has to pay their bill and sometimes agencies must go all-out to collect overdue accounts. A driver who tries to avoid this civic duty is labelled a violator (or, worse, a scofflaw) and can face penalties ranging from a suspended driver’s licence to court action and fines.

Violation enforcement wasn’t a big issue when tolls were paid with cash or tickets at a booth. But all-electronic tolling is becoming the industry standard and while this allows drivers to pass at highway speeds (saving time and fuel and cutting pollution), these systems rely on customers to do the right thing: pay their bills. And tolling agencies have to track down the ones who don’t.

“Nobody’s out to be vindictive,” explains Patrick Jones, executive director and CEO of the Washington, DC-based International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA). “But toll roads operate on a version of the ‘Golden Rule’: We all benefit because we all contribute. The vast majority of drivers pay their way, and we owe it to them to collect from those who don’t.”

Agencies are stepping up their efforts to collect unpaid tolls and fines, and in many US states repeat offenders face suspension of their driver’s licences.

Big money
According to one recent estimate, typically between 1.5 to 2% of tolls across the US go unpaid. That seemingly innocent average adds up to big money. Toll violations cost the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC) an estimated $17 million and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey $31 million.

PTC warned 10,611 motorists with overdue toll violations and invoices that new regulations meant they risked having their motor-vehicle registrations suspended if they didn’t settle their account. The authority also unveiled a partial amnesty to encourage its top toll scofflaws to pay before the law was enacted in August 2017 and collected $300,000 from violators in the week before the amnesty period ended. With the amnesty now expired, motorists with six or more outstanding PTC toll invoices or violations (or unpaid tolls and fees totalling $500 or more) are at risk of suspension.

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A clear message from the IBTTA
A clear message from the IBTTA designed to help its members remind drivers to pay their tolls

In bordering New Jersey, a driver from Fort Lee who racked up $108,000 on more than 1,500 toll violations and fees was charged with theft (and his classy black Porsche impounded) and another driver caught in Monmouth County owed $94,000 in tolls and fines. New Jersey also has a contender for the biggest violator, a trucking company that accumulated a bill that topped $1 million as its vehicle fleet was using a delinquent E-ZPass account more than 100 times per day.

The sheer number of toll violators in many jurisdictions is simply monumental — 131,000 in Maryland who were at risk of losing their vehicle registrations in 2014.

Tolling agencies frequently show flexibility in helping people adapt to accumulated tolls and fines by communicating clearly with drivers and in some circumstances, capping penalties. Ultimately, it’s a balancing act because in the end, tolling is a matter of fairness for all.

Port Authority police spokesperson Joe Pentangelo says: “Toll evasion is costly for everyone, especially law-abiding drivers. Getting toll cheats is just one of the many things our officers do, but it’s an important task. It’s something we take very seriously.”

As they should, Jones stresses. Toll rates are calculated to cover the cost of operating a highway, keeping drivers safe, and delivering the high levels of maintenance and upkeep that paying drivers expect.

“If one driver doesn’t pay, the cost falls on their neighbour,” he says, “because someone has to cover the cost. Without the toll, everyone would be paying a higher cost in the form of slower trips, heavier congestion and rougher roads that increase maintenance bills.”

Those costs may sound abstract, but the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2017 infrastructure report card concludes that it costs the average driver in, for example, Wisconsin, an additional $637 per year because the roads are in need of repair and in Connecticut the bill adds up to $864.

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Toll roads and plazas
Toll roads and plazas are always monitored so eventually cheats will get caught

Con tricks

Earlier this year, the Associated Press published some of the wheezes drivers use to avoid paying tolls.

One truck driver allegedly used a fishing line to flip his licence plate, making it unreadable as he passed through the video tolling system while a motorcyclist was accused of using a toggle switch which activated the licence plate retraction device to make his vehicle impossible to identify.

Tolling agencies have caught drivers using life-sized dummies to qualify to usehigh-occupancy vehicle (HOV) or high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes at no cost. In Florida, some drivers are even risking their (and others’) lives by driving the wrong way on busy highways to avoid passing through the toll lanes at the plazas. Some individuals are clearly spending hundreds of dollars and risking collisions, fines and legal costs to save a couple of bucks on their daily toll. Jones admits that some IBTTA members get annoyed.

“These drivers want to get where they’re going, on time and at the least possible cost — like everyone else on the road,” he says. “They don’t realise that it can cost a billion dollars or more to build the lane or the roadway that they’re trying to take for granted. There’s nothing hip, edgy, or ironic about evading tolls. It’s just theft, pure and simple.”

The North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) focused on education, communications and gaining legislative support prior to launching its Toll Enforcement Remedies (TER) Program in June 2013.  One of the successful components of the campaign was educating the public, stakeholders and elected officials about the magnitude of the issue.

At the time, the agency had an 8% violation rate and senior management had identified the need to streamline its collections process for unpaid tolls. Equally important was ensuring equitable payment by all toll road drivers and converting violators into TollTag customers.

The programme included vehicle registration blocks and banning habitual violators from the region’s toll roads until overdue amounts are paid. The initial phase began with a 90-day grace period, during which the agency collected millions of dollars in unpaid tolls and boosted enforcement awareness. Following the amnesty period, NTTA rolled out the full TER Program, and in 2016 it collected $47 million in unpaid tolls. It also received $15.8 million in TollTag transactions by requiring habitual violators to open TollTag accounts and keep them in good standing as part of their payment plan agreements.

Suggestions for toll agencies:

  • Focus on equity. The vast majority of users pay consistently, and it is fair to expect payment from all drivers.
  • Provide clear and consistent communications about the consequences for habitual violators, while ensuring they receive due process.
  • Introduce additional payment options and plans to make it easier for drivers to pay for what they use. Consider requiring those on payment plans to register for electronic tags and to keep their accounts in good standing.
  • Add value to all-electronic tags to attract and retain transponder customers.

Cross-border enforcement

There’s an added layer of complexity when tolling agencies have to enforce collections across state, provincial or international borders. Several US states are considering reciprocal agreements to help each other catch violators and collect what’s owed.

In 2011, the states of Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire finalised a deal to ‘crack down on their own residents who frequently blow off tolls in the other states’, the Pew Charitable Trusts reported in 2014. While this yielded only modest amounts of money, it was regarded as a ‘model for interstate cooperation’ as all-electronic tolling becomes the norm.

“It’s really an issue of fairness,” says Chris Waszczuk, administrator of the New Hampshire Bureau of Turnpikes. “If we don’t have the capability to collect from the out-of-staters, it is going to be a huge problem.”

There is, however, still more ground to cover. Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation was budgeting for $15 to $16 million in unpaid tolls, partly because the state has not yet developed reciprocal deals with nearby jurisdictions like Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York.

And Maine recently decided to embrace a mix of all-electronic and cash tolling systems, rather than trying to track down toll violators across an international border.

In the end, there’s no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all solution. But tolling agencies are working hard to collect the money that violators owe, and they’re sharing lessons learned as they figure out how to get the job done.

Companies in this article

Massachusetts Department of Transportation
Pennsylvania Turnpike
Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

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