Tollroads From Hell?

In NOVA, Transurban charges motorists thousands of dollars in fines.



Transurban, an Australia-based transportation firm that used to manage a big toll road in the Richmond area, has been getting a lot of bad press in news media and on the blogosphere these days.

It's been charging tens of thousands of dollars in fees for car drivers who dodge payments of relatively small E-Z pass tolls on its Interstate 495 hot lanes in Northern Virginia.

We’re talking court cases and assessments of $30,000 over some small missed tolls, according to WTOP and Fox News. The company has filed 26,000 complaints against I-495 drivers and taken many to court, as it's allowed to do under Virginia law.

Can it happen in Richmond?

Yes, although the situation apparently hasn't reached the tens of thousands of dollars level yet. The Richmond Metropolitan Authority, which operates toll roads such as the Downtown Expressway and the Powhite Parkway, and DBI Services, which took over management of the Pocahontas Parkway from Transurban last year, routinely go after motorists who dodge tolls.

Mary Ellin Arch, a spokesperson for DBI Services, told me that DBI will go after drivers who don’t pay, but the situation has yet to involve thousands of dollars in court as it apparently has in Transurban cases in Northern Virginia.

Tolls on the 8.8-mile-long Pocahontas Parkway, which connects Interstate 295 with Interstate 95 near the Richmond International Airport, charges tolls for an average car ranging from $2.75 on weekends to $3.25 during peak hours. Each car is photographed, and owners can be traced if they don’t pay fares by cash, credit card or EZ pass.

"We send a notice saying that if they pay the toll in 14 days, there’s no charge,” Arch says. If there’s no response, the firm adds on a $25 administrative fee and can and will take non-payers to court.

But she says the situation is nowhere as heated as it in Northern Virginia with Transurban, which dumped managing the long-troubled Pocahontas Parkway because it wasn’t making its numbers last year.

According to WTOP, two drivers faced bills totaling $30,000 for unpaid trips on the 495 Express Lanes. The toll operator of the lanes is defending itself against charges of price gouging.

Transurban took Toni Cooley and Jim Diller to court after both refused to pay fees and civil penalties. Transurban charged Cooley more than $10,000 and Diller more than $20,000, in fines and penalties. In Fairfax County General District Court, both argued that the administrative fees and civil penalties were illegal under Virginia law.

Both traveled on the 495 Express Lanes without realizing their E-ZPass accounts were out of money. Each fixed the issue afterward with E-ZPass and offered to write a check for the tolls. Cooley took 11 unpaid trips and Diller took 23 trips in the span of two weeks.

According to WTOP and Fox News, under Virginia law, Transurban can charge drivers $50 in civil penalties for the first offense, $250 for the second, $500 for the third, $1,000 for the fourth and any thereafter.

The Deal tried and failed to reach Transurban for comment.

(Hat tip to fellow blogger Jim Bacon at Bacons’ Rebellion for letting us know).