Va. Toll Road Scofflaws, Beware: State Says Pay Up

Morning traffic approaching the west bound toll plaza at Tysons Corner.
Morning traffic approaching the west bound toll plaza at Tysons Corner. (James M Thresher - James M Thresher -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 29, 2008

For years, dodging payments on the Dulles Toll Road was virtually risk-free. Now, it's more like an extreme sport.

After a long period of lax enforcement of toll-evading, the Virginia Transportation Department is demanding that dozens of motorists ante up -- including a part-time barber from Reston who the state says owes $21,000 for 38 violations.

A District salesman for an engineering firm, accused of skipping out on 28 tolls, has a $15,000 tab. A Sterling accountant's 18 alleged violations total more than $9,000 under the state's tough new enforcement practices.

"No, no, no. That's a big mistake. There's no way it can be $9,000. Why $9,000?" accountant Scarlett Araujo asked in an interview. Araujo said that she always pays her tolls but that she let a co-worker and a cousin drive her car. "You see it everywhere in movies. You do something nice, and something bad happens."

As cash-strapped transportation officials ready themselves for a new wave of toll lanes in the Washington region, including parts of the Capital Beltway and interstates 395 and 95, they have begun enforcing a tough law that allows stiff penalties.

Loose enforcement has cost the state millions, officials say; for years, the ominous-looking roadside contraptions meant to snag cheaters didn't even contain cameras. Officials say they also must prove to bond agencies that they are serious so the state can get favorable financing terms on future toll projects.

Starting with the fourth unpaid toll, photo-nabbed drivers are charged a $500 civil penalty for each trip. That's on top of a $25 administrative fee. In Fairfax, the court also adds $62 in court costs for each violation. And don't forget the toll: 75 cents a pop at the Dulles Toll Road's main plaza and 50 cents at the exits.

Deborah E. Brown, VDOT's head of innovative finance, who oversees enforcement, said the alleged violators' fines were kicked up from the typical $25 fee to the maximum penalty only after they failed to respond to multiple enforcement letters. Phone calls also went out before the summonses, Brown said. Those who fail to pay any final court judgment will have their registration renewals blocked, she said.

"Some phone numbers were not valid and some individuals hung up," Brown said by e-mail. "The penalties are only imposed on those who fail to pay tolls when due, that other toll facility patrons pay, and further fail to pay upon receipt of notices requesting payment."

Among the first batch of cases in Fairfax County, five motorists each have fines topping $10,000, according to accounting based on court records. A dozen more face fines of more than $4,000. The first wave to end up in Fairfax General District Court last week had officials scrambling to come up with a system. A special docket was set up; trials are being set for this summer.

"I'm sort of amazed. I didn't think most of us would . . . never pay tolls and just zip through there. But they do," said Suzy Swain, chief deputy clerk at the court. "For a round trip to and from work, you're talking $1,000 a day. That's pretty expensive for commuting."

The penalties for many crimes hardly compare. The fine for grand larceny, for instance, is $2,500.

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