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Express lanes operator offering forgiveness to some E-ZPass customers

Gantries like this record toll information as drivers pass under them at highway speed. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

Transurban, the company that operates the express lanes on the Capital Beltway in Virginia, is making some changes in its toll enforcement program in response to complaints from some toll road users that they unwittingly amassed big penalties using the lanes.

Transurban on Monday launched a program it calls “First-Time Forgiveness.” This is targeted at drivers who unknowingly have issues on the lanes, said Transurban spokeswoman Pierce Coffee. This would include drivers who get toll invoices indicating they have insufficient funds in their E-ZPass accounts, or who fail to link their license plates to their accounts or don’t mount the E-ZPass transponders correctly.

If E-ZPass customers contact the 495 Express Lanes within 60 days of the first trip that resulted in a payment problem, the company will waive all fees when they provide evidence they resolved their account issues with the E-ZPass system and paid their tolls.

Also, no additional penalties will be charged for incorrect mailing addresses. “In the event that we send an E-ZPass customer an invoice and the letter is returned with an unknown address, we will send the customer to debt collection,” Coffee wrote in an e-mail. “However, once debt collection locates the customer, Transurban will waive all fees if the customer contacts them and provides evidence they have resolved these account issues with E-ZPass, and pay their tolls.”

If a traveler doesn’t take advantage of this process, Transurban will try to collect the debt in court. But the company will seek to recover a maximum of $2,200, which includes administrative fees and civil penalties, plus tolls and court fees.

Coffee stressed that the program focuses on first-time violators who are E-ZPass users on the 495 Express Lanes only. “The customers need to contact 495 Express Lanes as soon as they realize there is an issue,” she said. “This program is a means to support Express Lanes customers who have inadvertently made a mistake, and enables us to continue to pursue frequent violators with the full spectrum of fees and penalties authorized by Virginia law.”

Drivers contacted me concerning problems with using the high-occupancy toll lanes, and I wrote several columns this month that included their complaints. But their bills were small compared with those cited in a Fox5 report last week.

The Beltway express lanes opened in November 2012, but their all-electronic tolling system, using highway-speed toll readers rather than toll plazas — still is relatively new in the D.C. region. The sensors mounted on the toll gantries give the drivers no feedback telling them their transaction has been recorded successfully. The highway speed readers are less forgiving of mistakes in mounting E-ZPass transponders than the readers mounted in slow-speed lanes at toll plazas. A video camera in the toll gantry records an image of the passing vehicles license plate as a backup, but if the user hasn’t linked the plate to the E-ZPass account, it’s more difficult to bill the customer.

Penalties for unpaid bills mount and the case can wind up with a debt collector. As I wrote during my online chat Monday, an E-ZPass customer’s $4.95 uncollected toll isn’t going to make or break Transurban, which has a state lease to operate the 495 Express Lanes for most of this century. What the company needs are happy customers who will keep coming back. Also, Transurban hopes to open the 29-mile-long 95 Express Lanes in December, and is in the midst of a marketing and education campaign to build up the number of drivers in the corridor who have E-ZPasses.

The new program is meant to keep legitimate customers coming back without creating the equivalent of a get-out-of-jail-free card for scofflaws.

The program Transurban announced Monday also includes these steps:

  • Assigning a new full-time staffer to review driver complaints and resolving toll discrepancies.
  • Sending the Virginia Department of Transportation a weekly list of E-ZPass transponder numbers with insufficient funds so that VDOT can alert those customers to correct the problem.
  • Developing an education campaign in conjunction with the Virginia E-ZPass program to ensure drivers know how to manage their E-ZPass accounts.

Problems with remote toll collection systems can be attention-getting, but they happen infrequently. By Transurban’s estimate, 96 percent of the E-ZPass transactions on the 495 Express Lanes go smoothly, and 99.9 percent of charges are paid before the matter gets to court.

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