Unfair Bridge Toll Fares
By Assemblymember Phil Ting
The COVID-19 global pandemic has increased our reliance on technology for our transactions to reduce close human contact.
One of those changes includes making Bay Area tolls cashless. But this shift has been unfair to working drivers who don’t have debit or credit cards to pay tolls electronically, consequently saddling them with debt as a result of compounding late fees and penalties that grew their balances to hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. No one should be fined for driving to work.
This all started back in March 2020, when toll booths became unstaffed, forcing payments through a transponder. Drivers without Fastrak toll tags are mailed an invoice and expected to pay it within 21 days. If they don’t pay on time, late fees and penalties are tacked on. One Bay Area woman ended up with a $31,000 bill; only 8% of that was in actual tolls.
She’s not alone. A recent study by the nonprofit organization San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) found that the people most impacted by the new system are lower income individuals, people of color and non-English speaking Californians. In many situations, people do not have a bank card to pay the invoice online, or they are unable to pay the full amount when balances ballooned as a result of penalties. This also does not account for those who did not receive their invoices, as the wrong address is on their car registration.
If the bills lapse after two notices, the Bay Area Toll Authority (BATA) can request the DMV to put a hold on the vehicle’s registration, which adds the unpaid tolls and penalties to the vehicle registration fee. And on June 8, this is the route BATA voted to take. They are ramping up enforcement efforts for unpaid bridge tolls and fines, citing a backlog of more than $184 million in late penalties and fees.
I’m disappointed with this decision because lower income workers who don’t have the luxury to work from home are most impacted. These drivers should have been identified sooner to provide earlier notice and create payment plan options for them. Bay Area drivers should not be penalized because BATA chose to suspend cash tolling and shift to electronic payment or mailed invoices. They need to drive to work or drop their kids off at school like so many of us.
To address this issue, I have authored Assembly Bill (AB) 2594, which requires the DMV to notify people of the process for address change for car registration when changing a driver’s license address and mandates all California toll agencies offer a cash-payment option with no additional fees. This bill also caps fines for toll violations and late payments and sets minimum time periods to pay fines before a car registration is suspended. In addition, AB-2594 requires toll agencies to set up payment plans for fines and penalties and requires rental car agencies to notify people of their ability to register their plates for tolling purposes rather than paying the rental car agency for tolls.
I am glad BATA plans to use elements of AB-2594, including allowing low-income individuals to set up payment plans, but I urge them to implement the other reforms in my bill so that more Bay Area drivers can be treated with fairness and equity.
Tacking on hefty fines or taking away a person’s vehicle registration is not how we should treat hardworking Californians. When agencies make decisions that have unfair consequences for some, it’s up to them to ensure that those most negatively impacted are treated justly.
Phil Ting represents the 19th Assembly District, which includes the west side of San Francisco along with the communities of Broadmoor, Colma and Daly City.