The company that manages the Interstate 495 toll lanes in Northern Virginia is socking violators with “unfair, illegal and unconscionable” fines and fees that have reached tens of thousands of dollars in some cases, according to a class-action lawsuit announced this week.
The suit, which was filed in federal court in Alexandria, claims that Transurban uses a predatory scheme because the Capital Beltway express lanes have not been as profitable as expected and some drivers are being hit with violations that never occurred.
“We all live in the area and have friends and family that have had problems with the toll lanes,” said Jeffrey Kaliel, an attorney with the firm Tycko & Zavareei. “It’s not run in a way that’s appropriate. It’s hurting a lot of people that never meant to run a toll.”
A Transurban spokesman declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying the company had not seen it. But he generally defended Transurban’s toll practices on the 14-mile stretch of lanes that runs from the Springfield Interchange past the Dulles Toll Road.
“Our toll enforcement practices meet the requirements of the Virginia Code,” the spokesman, Michael McGurk, said in an e-mail. “Transurban cannot and does not profit from our enforcement program or civil penalties.”
The suit claims that Transurban is routinely failing to notify drivers in a timely fashion that they have violated tolls. The tolls are collected by an automated system of sensors on gantries through an E-ZPass transponder in the car.
There is no red light or other indicator when a driver fails to pay a toll, so many drivers don’t know they have violated a toll and don’t pay, the lawsuit claims. Transurban then sends a toll invoice, which adds a $12.50 administrative fee per violation.
If the violation goes unpaid for 30 days, Transurban can assess a $100-per-violation fee. The lawsuit claims those fees are not reasonably related to the costs of collecting the tolls, which is required by Virginia law.
If a toll has not been paid after two invoices have been sent, Transurban can assess a civil penalty that ranges from $50 for the first offense to $1,000 for the fourth and each subsequent offense.
A driver could rack up fines and fees totaling $2,200 with just four offenses, according to the lawsuit, and Transurban can take defendants to court if they fail to pay. Lawyer David Bernhard, who tracks Express Lane cases, said there were about 26,000 summons issued to drivers in Fairfax County last year.
Some drivers have faced fees and fines far larger than $2,200.
Jo-Ann Brown, a plaintiff in the class-action suit, was assessed violations totaling $4.15 for missing five tolls but didn’t receive a violation notice until about 60 days later, according to the lawsuit.
Brown tried to pay the tolls and $100 administrative fee but was rebuffed by Transurban, the lawsuit says. She was then served with a summons saying the company was seeking $3,413.75 for the unpaid tolls, after fees and penalties were added.
Transurban has come under fire in recent months for its toll-collection practices. A Fairfax judge recently dismissed four cases against a Fredericksburg woman who claimed that the statute of limitations had expired before Transurban took her to court. Attorneys said the ruling could result in hundreds or thousands of other violators challenging their cases.
In October, in response to criticism, Transurban announced that it would begin a forgiveness program for first-time offenders and cap the amount of fees and penalties they would face at $2,200.
Transurban says about 1.5 million drivers have used the Express Lanes, which opened in 2012.
“We are pleased that the vast majority of our customers pay at the time of travel without issue, and less than 0.1% of 495 Express Lanes trips end up in court,” McGurk wrote.