In The News › Drivers deserve a break on old tolls: Editorial

Drivers deserve a break on old tolls: Editorial

By The Times-Picayune Editorial Board

August 07, 2013

After years of paying to cross the Crescent City Connection, drivers finally got relief from the tolls this year. Or so it seemed. Now three months after voters emphatically rejected renewing the bridge tolls, the state Department of Transportation and Development is sending out thousands of bills for supposed toll violations going back three years or more.

Not surprisingly, some people getting the notices are most unhappy. Who could blame them?

Management of the bridge was notoriously inefficient, and one of the most maligned efforts in recent years was the automated toll enforcement system.

A legislative auditor’s report earlier this year showed that the bridge had more than one million violations outstanding. Toll plaza cameras snapped images of vehicles passing through toll tag lanes without paying, but the money hadn’t been collected.

Auditors found that drivers with toll tag accounts were allowed to pass through the toll plaza without paying even if they had insufficient balances in their account. The audit also found that the CCC failed to send notices to 206,700 toll violators, did not bill out-of-state drivers for their violations and had no mechanism to update credit card information for toll tag accounts.

That shouldn’t have been allowed to happen. But moving to crack down on violators now raises a new set of problems.

Motorists will have a hard time disputing a ticket because alleged infractions occurred so long ago. The violation includes a photo of the car’s license plate, but the machinery isn’t necessarily foolproof.

The DOTD’s own lawsuit against the company that was hired to put in the system made that clear. The 2010 lawsuit alleged that drivers who had prepaid toll accounts still received tickets for not paying because of a glitch in the system. The suit also claimed some drivers who had already paid tickets got a second notice to pay.

So, skepticism about the validity of the notices going out now is certainly warranted. If the tickets had been sent immediately after the purported violation, people would have a better idea of whether they were on the bridge at the time.

As it is, drivers who get the notices will be hard-pressed to argue over the specifics.

Since there is an amnesty program through Oct. 1, the violations might not cost most individuals very much. Although there is a $25 processing fee listed for each unpaid toll, people can get out of that fee and pay only the $1 toll.

But they have to file a request for amnesty, which may be a hassle for some people to do.

Besides, if it actually costs $25 to collect a $1 toll, the state will lose money on anyone who gets amnesty. Unless, that is, officials are hoping people miss that deadline and have to pay the full price.

Jefferson Parish Council Chairman Chris Roberts argues that the state should drop the collection effort. “If the state of Louisiana did not have a reliable working system in place to collect the toll when the violation occurred, then you all should find a legal way to drop this effort,’‘ he said in an email to the assistant transportation secretary last week.

Mr. Roberts makes a good argument. The fact that the automated toll collection system was a mess for years wasn’t the fault of drivers, some of whom simply needed to update their credit card information to avoid a violation.

DOTD officials argue that lawmakers required the state to try to collect the unpaid tolls and gave the department no flexibility. The law may be that finely drawn, but it would be surprising.
What makes these notices so maddening is how much toll money the state allowed to be wasted over the years.

The Bureau of Governmental Research reported in 2011 that only 19 cents of every dollar in tolls went to maintaining and policing the bridge. Almost as much — 16 cents — went to collecting and administering the tolls.

And that, as is evidenced by the notices going out now, wasn’t done very well.

State Rep. Patrick Connick, who helped uncover the waste on the bridge and pushed to get the tolls revoked, said the smartest thing may be for people to sign up for the amnesty program and pay the few bucks DOTD says they owe.

He may be right. But it would be better for state officials to do as Councilman Roberts asked and give drivers a break.

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