The California State Assembly today took a step towards making the payment system for missed bridge tolls more fair and equitable by approving AB 2594 by Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco). The bill gives drivers opportunities to resolve their toll charges before they escalate into crippling debt that started out as $6 or $7, but ballooned to hundreds, and sometimes thousands of dollars, after late fees and penalties are assessed multiple times.
“The switch to using technology to pay tolls has disproportionately impacted drivers who don’t have debit or credit cards. The resulting penalties for unpaid tolls are worse than those given for traffic violations,” said Ting. “We must give people the chance to settle their account before we saddle them with balances they can never pay off.”
When the pandemic began, toll collectors were removed at Bay Area bridges to minimize person-to-person contact. Drivers could pay either electronically with a FasTrak, pay one-time online or receive a notice by mail if they don’t have a transponder. However, this system doesn’t account for notices that can get lost in the mail or sent to the wrong address. For instance, a change of address with the Department of Motor Vehicles for a driver’s license does not automatically change the address on a car registration, which is used to send a notice. Making matters worse, unbanked individuals don’t have a way to pay online.
Under current law, agencies can charge up to $100 for the first violation; $250 for the second; and $500 for each additional violation within one year. One Alameda County resident owes more than $30,000 – 90% of it in penalties. In analyzing notices, a recent report by SPUR found the biggest debt burden tends to fall on lower-income drivers and Bay Area neighborhoods with substantial populations of people of color and non-English-speaking residents.
“Government shouldn’t be pushing people into poverty. We need an equitable toll system across the state that addresses the needs of our diverse population. The removal of the toll operators during the pandemic has affected our most vulnerable populations, and such a significant change must be met with comprehensive solutions,” said Jacob Denney, Economic Justice Policy Director at SPUR.
Furthermore, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s (MTC) data shows of the 5.1 million second notice violations that were sent out between January 1 and August 31, 2021, only 12% of them were paid. Among the reforms in AB 2594, toll agencies must:
- Offer a cash-payment option
- Cap fines and late fees
- Establish payment plans for fines and penalties
- Set a minimum time period to pay fines before car registration is suspended for nonpayment
In addition, the DMV must notify people to change the address on their vehicle registration when they are doing so for their driver license, and car rental agencies would be required to provide customers with information about toll agencies’ charges and payment options.
While MTC and the Bay Area Toll Authority have taken steps to reduce fines and create equity, more needs to be done, and reforms need to be applied to all agencies. AB 2594 now heads to the Senate for consideration.