State To Crack Down On Unpaid Highway Tolls

The amount of unpaid tolls has risen since the expansion of cashless tolling by the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority and is likely to increase, according to a recent audit by Thomas DiNapoli, state comptroller.

DiNapoli’s audit found that even when uncollected tolls can be billed, law firms hired to collect outstanding tolls and fees have not been effective.

“More needs to be done to ensure that those using our bridges and tunnels are paying the required tolls and that the TBTA is collecting the money it is owed, especially by the worst offenders, who persistently refuse to pay,” DiNapoli said. “This audit identifies several ways to improve the collection of unpaid tolls, which is needed to help maintain and repair New York City’s bridges, tunnels and transit system.”

The state categorizes some unpaid tolls as “unbillable” because either the license plates captured on camera cannot be traced or are not legible. The audit, which covered a period from Jan. 1, 2013, to Aug. 20, 2017, found that the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority did not maximize toll collection for a variety of reasons, including license plate images that could not be processed and an inability to obtain addresses for some out-of-state drivers, resulting in potential lost revenue of $2.4 million. The lost revenue calculation is a conservative estimate based on the assumption that all unbilled tolls are cars. The toll for a five-axle tractor trailer is almost five and a half times that of a car.

Prior to 2017, only the Henry Hudson Bridge used electronic tolling as the “Open Road Tolling” system was tested. During 2017, as “Open Road Tolling,” also known as cashless tolling, expanded to all nine Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority crossings the number of unbilled tolls increased dramatically. In the first eight months of 2017, there were nearly 200,000 unbilled tolls, up from 47,240 in 2016. In monetary terms, in 2016 when the Henry Hudson Bridge was the only facility using cashless tolls, unbilled transactions totaled $259,820. By Aug. 20, 2017, when all of the authority’s crossings had instituted cashless tolling, that number rose to $1.6 million.

Up to six images are captured per vehicle, but only the “best” two are sent for billing review. The Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority provided auditors with details of the unbilled toll transactions from rejected images, which totaled 340,851 from Jan. 1, 2013, through Aug. 20, 2017. These included transactions for the Henry Hudson Bridge and six other Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority other crossings for 2017. Auditors reviewed 61 images and determined four of them were incorrectly rejected and could be used for billing purposes.

Another challenge the audit identified was the absence of agreements that would allow the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority to get out-of-state drivers’ addresses for temporary license plates from their state’s Department of Motor Vehicles.

DiNapoli’s audit also found that the three law firms hired by the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority were not effective in collecting from persistent toll violators. As of May 2, 2017, two firms were assigned 241 cases with $5.5 million. Of that amount, $1.9 million was settled for $653,290 with $181,890 collected. The Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority paid the two firms $69,027 and stopped sending cases to one of them, citing its lack of responsiveness to its directions. The third firm had one case with a settlement of $438,215 of which $53,182 was collected.

DiNapoli’s audit noted that the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority gave the firms the ability to negotiate with the expectation of collecting 100 percent of tolls due and a portion of the administrative violation fees owed. The firms did not, however, receive written guidance for discounting the fees and all settlements had to be approved by the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority Law Department. In one example, a person who owed $77,089 in tolls and administrative fees settled for $20,000, of which the TBTA has received $1,200 as of Jan. 30, 2017.

The Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority Law Department has stated its intention to bring work in-house.

DiNapoli’s audit recommended that the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority:

¯ Improve New York Customer Service Center’s access to more image files.

¯ Regularly review and monitor the rejected image process to ensure rejected images are categorized correctly.

¯ Require that vendors take action (and document such actions) to obtain temporary license plate registration information from out-of-state DMVs.

¯ Document the business practice changes as a result of transitioning from outside to in-house counsel, prepare cost-benefit analysis, and establish a completion date for the transition.

The agency replied it agreed with most of the audit recommendations and has taken action to implement some of them. Officials did not agree with the audit’s description of the growth in the number of unbilled tolls after the implementation of Open Road Tolling at all of TBTA’s nine facilities.