Photo tolling not there yet

Switch to statewide contractor, problems with billing, changes to revenue distribution stall program

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With the summer travel season in full throttle and the new Tacoma Narrows bridge turning 4 this week, drivers will have to keep waiting indefinitely before they can legally cross without stopping at a tollbooth or maintaining a Good to Go account.

A third way to pay — known as photo tolling, based on pictures taken of license plates as vehicles cross the bridge — was supposed to start this spring, with drivers receiving a bill for $5.50 in the mail. But problems arising during the switch to a statewide tolling contractor have caused delays. Also delayed is the end of $52 infractions for drivers who fail to pay for trips across the eastbound bridge.

Photo tolling will begin about the same time on the state Route 520 floating bridge. Tests of the system on the Seattle bridge revealed some glitches, Washington State Department of Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said last month; photo tolling can’t begin until she certifies the system as fully operational.

As of last week, “we’re still working through testing,” said Patricia Michaud, spokeswoman for WSDOT.

The contractor, Electronic Transaction Consultants Corp. of Richardson, Texas, has agreed to forgo $2 million that was contractually owed for missing the April launch and will be assessed $300,000 a week in penalties starting today until the system is operational. ETCC’s actual fine will be subject to negotiations, Michaud said.

Appeal in the works

A Gig Harbor resident has pledged to stop photo tolling before it can start.

Randy Boss, leader of a group that filed lawsuits challenging tolls on the Narrows bridge, has said he will file suit against photo tolling once his appeals challenging the state’s adoption of rules and rates are exhausted within the month.

Boss maintains the state didn’t properly establish the fee added to the bridge toll that would pay the costs of reading license plates and mailing registered owners the bills. He also contends the rules were adopted without the state collecting public comment; a transcript of a February meeting in Seattle showed the comment session lasted a minute, and no one testified during that time, he said.

Michaud said the state followed the established processes and that participation at the hearing was limited by a snowstorm.

Jim Pasin, a member of the bridge’s citizen advisory committee, said he isn’t sweating the delay in photo tolling.

“In fact, I’d prefer to never see it on this bridge,” he said, adding that the new method will cost the bridge and its regular users over time because expenses will eat into revenues, the equipment will miss vehicles and it will be difficult to track down out-of-state-visitors or military personnel who haven’t swapped out out-of-state license plates.

The citizens committee recommended a $7 photo toll, but the state transportation commission lowered it by $1.50.

WSDOT officials maintain the fee will cover actual costs.

As added protection, Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, and his colleagues in the state House added language to the transportation budget passed this year that states that tollpayers not be on the hook if revenues come in lower or expenses higher than expected.

Conversion glitches caused thousands of electronic account holders to be sent infraction notices that were later converted to tolls or dismissed. The contractor is still working through a backlog of potential violations.

“I’d rather see things done right than get things done quickly,” Kilmer said. “I’d like them to quickly get it right.”

Recent troubles

Photo tolling means drivers who miss a toll won’t be slapped with a $52 infraction. Instead, they’ll receive a bill in the mail for $5.50 — $1.50 more than what they pay at the tollbooths, and twice as much as drivers with electronic accounts pay through transponders.

If violators don’t pay within 30 days of crossing, they’ll be assessed a $5 fee. An additional $40 civil penalty will be tacked on if they don’t pay in 80 days.

Appeals would be handled by an administrative law judge, no longer by Pierce County District Court. That change, originally scheduled to begin July 1, also alters how the revenue is divided. According to the current system, $40 of the infraction money goes to the district court to pay processing costs; the remaining $12 goes into the account that pays debt service on bridge construction. With the change, all money would go into the bridge account.

The recent troubles and delays have put the district court in an unusual position; it will continue to process the backlog of violations without knowing how many it will receive and how many will be valid.

Michaud said account holders had until Thursday to update their information so ETCC and WSDOT could begin cross-checking infractions. The county could net some additional revenue or none at all, depending on how many infractions are dismissed or converted to regular tolls, said Pat O’Malley, the district court’s presiding judge.

The court previously found problems including mismatched license plate numbers, violations without appeal instructions and duplicate filings.

The court had collected $476,000 in violation revenue through February, when the mailing of infractions was temporarily stopped due to the change in contractors; it costs $30,000 a month to process them, O’Malley said. Excess revenue went into the county general fund, he said.