MWAA may be missing out on tolls from scofflaws


A view of the Dulles Toll Road looking east from Leesburg Pike. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
February 7, 2013

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates the Dulles Toll Road, failed to collect unpaid tolls and fees from three out of four toll violations cited last year, raising questions about the effectiveness of arrangements made by the authority to track down toll cheats.

A company hired to pursue toll violators sent out 95,269 violation notices in 2012, and no payment was made on nearly 71,000. Overall, about 1 million toll violations were tallied last year, but notices were issued on only the 95,269, or fewer than 10 percent.

MWAA officials said notices are sent after violations are reviewed internally and by the contractor. But according to an MWAA audit that was discussed at a recent authority board meeting, MWAA officials don’t have information on why some violations are dismissed without payment, a practice that could be costing the authority hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue. The MWAA has declined to release the audit.

Since the MWAA began managing the toll road in 2009, the percentage of violation notices that are paid has declined. In 2010, about 42 percent of toll violations were paid; in 2011, the percentage declined to 27 percent.

Maximizing revenue on the toll road is important, in part, because toll income is supposed to finance more than half the cost of the $5.6 billion Silver Line Metrorail extension. The MWAA is responsible for managing the 23.1-mile project, which will provide Metrorail service to Tysons and eventually to Dulles International Airport.

Many transportation agencies look to toll revenue to pay for big-ticket transportation projects. The region’s most notable examples are the Intercounty Connector in Maryland and the Capital Beltway expansion in Virginia.

The MWAA, a regional agency that operates Dulles and Reagan National airports, has a business agreement with the Virginia Department of Transportation to process toll violations. VDOT, in turn, has a contract with Faneuil, a firm based in Hampton, Va., to track down those who fail to pay.

Andrew Roundtree, the MWAA’s chief financial officer, said it is not clear whether a closer examination of toll violations would translate into more money for the authority. But the audit, he said, was part of an effort to “ensure we’re not losing out on anything.”

“We clearly want to fulfill our responsibility to follow up on toll violators,’’ he said

Tom Davis, a member of the MWAA board, said it is a question he and others have been asking for years.

“We’re looking at revamping the whole thing,” Davis said. “It’s all on the table: How do we maximize fairness and revenue?”

The toll problem was first reported by the Washington Examiner.

Even as the percentage of violation notices has declined, revenue from fines has increased. In 2010, the authority collected about $715,000 from toll violations; in 2011, about $1.1 million. Roundtree attributed the increased revenue to higher toll rates.

For users of the toll road, it’s about fairness.

If authority officials are not pursuing toll violators, “then that’s something they ought to be doing,” said Terry Maynard, a member of the Reston Citizens Association, a group that has opposed using toll road revenue to pay for the rail line.

Of the estimated 95,269 violation notices sent to toll road drivers in 2012, fines were paid on about 21,679 after the notices were received. An additional 9,139 violations were sent to the court system, and the authority received payment on 2,782 of those. Combined, the authority received payment for about 25 percent of cited violations.

The number of times people use the toll road without paying is relatively low — just over 1 million a year out of about 100 million trips. Still, those toll violations amount to at least $1 million in potential revenue.In 2012, the average toll paid by a toll road driver was about $1 — so even collecting from a fraction of violators could bring hundreds of thousands dollars.

“If you don’t have a system that has the respect of the public, you risk severely damaging your revenue stream,” said Jorge Figueredo, director of national tolls for Atkins North America, which designs highways and other infrastructure.

Regardless of the numbers, some observers say it's important for the MWAA to go after those who fail to pay, arguing that it’s matter of principle.

“The more people who go through the toll gate and are not brought to justice, the more they will do that,” said John B. Townsend II, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s manager of public and government affairs.

Maynard, of the Reston Citizens Association, remarked, “Frankly, my expectation is that the percentage [of violations] would go up as tolls go up because people don’t want to pay the higher toll.”

As states increasingly look to tolls as a source of income, the MWAA’s problems illustrate a broader national struggle to ensure that those who use toll roads pay their way.

A 2010 report commissioned by the Virginia General Assembly found that there were nearly 2 million toll violations statewide in 2010 and warned that unless enforcement became more aggressive, the number could climb to 4 million by 2015.

As new technologies replace the tollbooth operator, the change sometimes appears to encourage toll scofflaws.

Last fall, a Washington Post analysis found that nearly one in three motorists using Maryland’s Intercounty Connector without an E-ZPass transponder did not pay the toll later. As a result, the ICC had a toll violation rate four times the state average. This year, Maryland legislators have proposed stiffer penalties for chronic toll cheaters.

The MWAA uses a combination of E-ZPass transponders and tollbooths on the Dulles Toll Road. Cameras that snap a photo of a vehicle’s license plates were added in 2005 to catch those who don’t pay. The authority encourages drivers to use E-ZPass, but there are no toll gates to prevent drivers from taking advantage of using the E-ZPass lanes without paying.

Late last year, the MWAA’s board of directors voted to increa se tolls in 2013 and 2014, although the board put off a decision on whether to raise tolls in 2015. Further increases are expected to be phased in as the authority acts to pay the cost of the rail project.

MWAA officials have pledged to keep the tolls as low as possible, but initial estimates show drivers could someday pay as much as $18.75 to travel the road.

As part of the audit, which was presented to the board of directors at its January meeting, Valerie Holt, the MWAA’s vice president for audit, recommended that the authority seek more detailed information about transactions handled by VDOT, including the number of violations that are dismissed and the reasons for dismissing them.

Although the audit was discussed at a public board meeting and cited in public documents, MWAA officials declined to make the audit public. The Washington Post has filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking the information.

In recent years, Virginia lawmakers have made it easier for toll road operators to collect from scofflaws. In 2011, the state enacted a law that allows operators to collect an administrative fee, in addition to the unpaid toll, after a first violation. Previously, a fee could not be collected until there had been a second violation.

Vehicle owners in Virginia who have three or more unpaid violations can land in court, where a judge may impose a civil penalty of as much as $500 for multiple violations. If the fine is not paid, the state can put a hold on the violator’s vehicle registration renewal.

For some, it simply boils down to fairness.

Davis, the MWAA board member, said, “You can’t have a system that rewards bad behavior, or you get more bad behavior.”

Dan Keating contributed to this report.

Lori Aratani writes about how people live, work and play in the D.C. region for The Post’s Transportation and Development team.
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