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.
Chief Judge Donald P. McDonough voiced some consternation from the bench last week, at both the scale of the fines and the possibility of a rush of trials pitting VDOT's representatives against drivers with myriad explanations.
"Some of the excuses I have heard are quite liable to be true," McDonough said from the bench. He also encouraged VDOT and its representatives to be open to negotiating with drivers on the large fines.
Brown said that "we will comply with the court's recommendation," but did not otherwise show VDOT's hand.
None of the Fairfax cases have gone to trial. Cases were also filed under the new system in Loudoun and Chesterfield this month and are expected to start in August or September in Gloucester, Brown said. The largest fine paid so far was $1,900 in Loudoun for six violations, she said.
Henos Taye paid more than $300 this week to cover two of his nine alleged violations on the Dulles Toll Road. Paying the full fines on all of them would cost more than $4,000.
"I admitted the one or the two of them in February because I didn't have any money in my SmartTag," he said referring to the electronic transponder that automatically deducts tolls from a motorist's account. He said he doesn't know what happened on the other seven. He plans to talk to VDOT about a settlement.
The Dulles Toll Road is an eight-lane state-owned highway operated by VDOT. The 14-mile road extends from the Capital Beltway to the Dulles Greenway, a private toll road.
The toll road's E-ZPass/Smart Tag-only lanes do not have gates, but vehicles that rush through without paying the toll trigger a flashing light and "ding-ding-ding" sound. The same is true of the regular lanes, some of which have gates.
The man behind the wheel of Isham Ahmed's car saved less than $30 by skirting along the Dulles Toll Road 20 times last year without paying. Last week, Ahmed stood in court facing a $10,000 bill from the state.
"It's a lot of money, sir," McDonough told a shaken Ahmed. Ahmed told the judge he wasn't in the car but remained responsible.
"I think I'm guilty on that. Unfortunately, at that time, I wasn't driving the car," Ahmed said. McDonough told him he would dismiss the case, as allowed by the law, if Ahmed submitted affidavits giving the name and address of the person he says was driving.
But Ahmed said that he knew only the man's first name and that he has moved back to Africa with no forwarding address. He appeared eager to just settle the matter quickly.
The judge continued the case, and talks were scheduled with the private company that handles photo-enforcement for VDOT. Ahmed declined to comment after his court appearance Wednesday.
Charles Stanley has been driving his 1996 Acura down the Dulles Toll Road for years, making the trip from Reston to his job as a barber in Alexandria a little less painful.
Stanley, who also works as a highway lane closer for construction projects, said he only started receiving notices about unpaid tolls in March.
"They sent me like two violations, three violations. And then a whole bunch of them just came in at one time," Stanley said.
He said he always pays the tolls. Sometimes the machines get jammed, he said.
Last year, VDOT dismissed thousands of violations after officials determined that technical and human glitches led to wrongful violations notices.
Brown said most of the alleged violations that are subject to the court cases occurred in the E-ZPass-only lanes, and new processes are in place to filter out violations if there is an equipment failure with one of the automatic coin machines.
Neil Schroeder said he came home from a business trip to find a thick stack of summonses. He sometimes takes the Dulles Toll Road to Herndon for his job at an engineering firm, and he said he has had a Smart Tag on an automatic payment plan for years.
"The first notification of a problem can't be a $15,000 bill. I'm hopeful they'll agree with me on that," he said.