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Dulles Road Cheaters Take Toll on Virginia

Some of the cameras, lights and other enforcement devices along the Dulles Toll Road are just for show, Virginia officials say. Without equipment to catch cheaters, some fees go uncollected.
Some of the cameras, lights and other enforcement devices along the Dulles Toll Road are just for show, Virginia officials say. Without equipment to catch cheaters, some fees go uncollected. (By Larry Morris -- The Washington Post)

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By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 16, 2005

When drivers blow through the toll lanes on the Dulles Toll Road without paying, a red security light immediately flashes and starts whirling in circles. A loud bell rings.

And that's it. Forever.

Despite the gaudy appearance of enforcement, it's all for show, state officials acknowledged. That little device that looks like it houses a camera? There's nothing in there. There is no equipment to catch toll cheaters. No pictures are taken. No ticket is issued. No note is sent home to Mom.

And, most important for Virginia, no money is collected. The lack of enforcement costs the state about $1.2 million a year, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation, which said about 6,600, or 1.7 percent, of the 381,000 weekday toll road users get away without paying.

"That is quite a bit of money," said Dennis Morrison, Northern Virginia administrator for VDOT, who did not know about the lack of enforcement until asked about it by a reporter. "We need to quickly get a system up so we're not losing" it.

VDOT officials said glitches in toll equipment also account for some of the uncollected money.

Electronic tolls were first put on the Dulles Toll Road in 1996, but no electronic enforcement went with it. The state uses sporadic police patrols to enforce the tolls, which range from 50 to 75 cents.

So why all the bells and lights when violators drive by? "To alert a nearby toll collector if they can catch the license plate to take down information or if law enforcement is nearby and there is somebody they need to pursue," said Deborah Brown, director of innovative finance and revenue operations at VDOT.

Virginia has delayed adding high-tech enforcement on the Dulles Toll Road because there have been problems with systems at two other facilities, and VDOT wanted to find a good method that would be usable everywhere, Brown said.

Officials said the agency plans to install such a system on the Dulles Toll Road and elsewhere in fall 2006 that will include cameras to take pictures of license plates. Under that system, which will be similar to ones used in Maryland and other states, bills will be mailed to violators, officials said.

"Nothing will 100 percent solve the problem of violations," Brown said, "but it certainly will improve enforcement efforts."

Toll violations are rare at manned booths, where drivers stop to hand over money. Few drivers will speed through a booth with someone in it, and many of those lanes have gates that prevent people from passing without paying.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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