Tappan Zee Bridge tolls: Drivers' unhappy brush with cashless tolling

They want to pay their tolls to cross the Gov. Mario Cuomo Bridge, but they don‘t want to pay hundreds — and in some case, thousands — of dollars in fines they see as excessive, arbitrary and imposed without due process.

At Tuesday‘s panel discussion at The Journal News, unhappy drivers signed up to learn how to untangle themselves from the maw of what they say is an unfair tolling system. They also came to vent about how the New York State Thruway‘s roll out of cashless tolls — on the Cuomo Bridge  and its predecessor the Tappan Zee Bridge — had taken its toll on their peace of mind.

For weeks now, The Journal News/lohud , and end up owing hundreds and even thousands of dollars in fines. 

Some hightlights from Tuesday‘s meeting included:

  • State Sen. David Carlucci (D-New City), said he is working on a Toll Payer Protection Act to correct some of the problems that have come to light.
  • John Corlett, legislative committee chairman of AAA New York State, said he has not heard from many members about cashless tolling.
  • James Sarna, attorney specializing in bankruptcy and personal debt, said the hefty fines without apparent notification demonstrated a lack of due process that was troubling.
  • Marcie Kobak, supervising attorney for litigation at Legal Services of the Hudson Valley, said those faced with violation notices have the right to demand documentation.

Thruway Authority‘s chief of staff Adam Wood and communications chief Jennifer Givner were on hand, answering questions about the planned amnesty for those with violations, and promising to help those who were frustrated by the rollout of cashless tolling.

They certainly heard an earful.

Reggie Slack lives in Ossining, but his work transporting rescue dogs finds him all over the place, between his home in Ossining and upstate Warwick and New Jersey. 

Slack said the lag time between when he used the bridge and when he was billed is unacceptable. He also took issue with the amount of fines imposed.

“I could see if it was six months or a year later and I didn‘t pay my toll bill, but I didn‘t get the bill until the one you‘re sending me with the violation,” he said. “They say the bill is online, but I went online for two months straight and the bill was never online. Two weeks, I get a violation bill that says I owe them $700 and then $1,000.”

Then there‘s the fine: “A toll has a $100 violation fee, for every time.”

The Cuomo bridge toll is $5 for cars without E-ZPass, and $4.75 with the pass. 

Slack said he has a problem with E-ZPass. He doesn‘t want to tie up money in the account when he might not cross the bridge as much from one week to the next. 

“They say, ‘We feel you need to have this much in your account‘ and they may take it out at different times and have the bill go through on a different day and then they suspend your EZ-Pass because the money wasn‘t there.”

The stakes for unpaid violations are high.

“If they suspend my registration, I‘m done,” he said. “I won‘t have a job. If they suspend your registration and you lose your job, how do they expect to get their money?”

Slack said he spent two hours on hold before he was told they would settle for him paying a lesser amount. “But I can‘t keep agreeing to pay $500, $600,” he said.

Slack said he likes toll booths where you can see a tolltaker and pay your toll, not wait for a bill that may or may not come in the mail.

“I drive in New Jersey almost every day and I don‘t have any toll violations in New Jersey and there‘s a bazillion tolls in New Jersey.”

‘You could destroy somebody‘s life‘

Judy Basso drives from Mohegan Lake to Sparkill to get her father to dialysis three times a week. The 85-year-old was driving himself to treatment until his $13,000 in unpaid cashless-tolling fines triggered the Department of Motor Vehicles to suspend his car‘s registration.

Basso said the collection agencies “are evil to deal with, they have no compassion whatsoever.”

“He‘s on a fixed budget and lives in a building with people the same age who are going through the same exact problem. These people get Social Security. They‘re sick. They go back and forth to doctors. This has been the most stressful thing. It‘s horrible what they‘re going through. You could actually destroy somebody‘s life.” 

“If it was a bank or a credit-card company charging the fees you guys are charging, it would be illegal,” she said. “There‘d be something done immediately.”

Basso said she‘s getting threatening letters from lawyers, saying her father owes $13,000 in tolls and fees.

“It is a nightmare. They‘re literally taking advantage of people.”

“Who makes the decision on how much we pay?” she wondered aloud. 

Slack had an answer: “Who‘s ever on the other end of the line.”

“These are no better than those pay-day loans and the interest they charge,” Basso said. “I think we should all get together and sue for stress and aggravation.”

Suspensions, impounding

Mara Sine from Scarsdale learned that the her in a battle over cashless tolling, because her problems involve a different bridge: the Henry Hudson, not the Mario Cuomo Bridge.

She said she never got a bill for the trips she and her husband took over the Henry Hudson, until an envelope arrived in October saying Sine owed $636.75 in tolls and $9,000 in violation fees.

“We never received a bill,” she said. “We didn‘t have EZ-Pass, but it was an EZPass violation so I called E-ZPass and they said ‘As long as you pay your tolls and write a letter, it won‘t get sent to a collection agency and they‘ll reduce the violations.‘”

She sent off the $636.75 on November 7, she said, and the next day she got an identical bill. The next month‘s bill showed a lower amount of tolls due, but $9,100 in violations fees.

She got an E-ZPass device for her cars, but then she got a note that her registration would be suspended for nonpayment.

The MTA representative she spoke with said if she didn‘t pay her violations, her registration would be suspended and her car impounded.

When she reached the TransWorld debt collection company, she was told that they would settle for $3,600 to cover the tolls and fines, or 10 percent of what she owed. 

She did the math: 10 percent of $9,100 would be $910.

“But they said by the time I called I owed $22-plus-thousand dollars. He said ‘It‘s actually going up to $24,000.‘”

The representative told Sine she should have paid the violation bill.

“The one I never received,” she said.

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