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'High Pain, Low Gain': How Bridge Toll Penalties Pile Debt on Lower-Income Drivers

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Aerial view of six lands of bumper-to-bumper traffic backed up at a toll plaza in the distance.
Commuter traffic backs up at the toll plaza to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge on July 2, 2013, in Oakland (when cash was still accepted). (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

This story contains a correction.

A new report from a Bay Area public policy group is calling for a major overhaul of the region's system of penalties for late payment of bridge tolls — one that economic justice advocates say has become a debt trap for thousands of Bay Area drivers.

The report from SPUR, a San Francisco urban planning research organization, analyzes a system that mails out millions of violation notices each year, many of which never get to the drivers they're addressed to.

The system has left some motorists facing the possibility that what may start out as a handful of unpaid $6 tolls can metastasize into hundreds or even thousands of dollars in fees and penalties they have little hope of paying — and which can lead to their vehicle registrations getting blocked.

"They're pushing me into bankruptcy, basically," said Kelly Cadwallader, an Alameda resident facing a bill of over $30,000 — more than 90% of it in penalties. "It's inevitable at this point, because they're not letting me make a deal."

Lower-income drivers bear heaviest burden

The SPUR study, "Bridging the Gap," finds the biggest debt burden tends to fall on lower-income drivers and Bay Area neighborhoods with substantial populations of people of color and non-English-speaking residents.

Jacob Denney, SPUR's economic justice policy director and one of the report's authors, said breaking down 2019 toll penalty data by ZIP code shows that "our lowest-income communities and our most diverse communities were the ones who are disproportionately receiving toll violations. We're talking about per capita rates of more than one toll violation per person living there."

This map shows the rate of violations per capita by Bay Area ZIP code, as compared to poverty rates by ZIP code. The SPUR study found that lower-income communities in the Bay Area have much higher rates of unpaid tolls than wealthier ZIP codes. Source: MTC toll violation data and the Census Bureau's 2019 American Community Survey five-year estimates. (SPUR)

Among the communities cited in the SPUR report and in a parallel Metropolitan Transportation Commission analysis as having high levels of violations are parts of Oakland, Richmond, Vallejo, Pittsburg, Antioch and San Francisco's Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood.

Not much cash recovered

The SPUR report also finds that the penalties, administered by the FasTrak toll collection system, are largely ineffective at getting drivers to pay tolls they've missed.

MTC statistics show that just 12% of the 5.1 million "second notice" violations issued between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, 2021 — which carry the maximum penalty of $70, plus the original $6 toll — were actually paid.

Rio Scharf, an attorney with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, who represents Cadwallader and other clients facing similar debt burdens, characterizes the system as "high pain and low gain."

"It results in very little additional revenue, but it causes a variety of pretty severe consequences for the people that it does impact," Scharf said. "... For people who lack the funds to pay, they are hit with enormous financial penalties that punish them at a rate that is really pretty exceptional, even compared to how we punish people for failure to pay in the traffic court system or the criminal court system."

The SPUR report comes as the MTC and the Bay Area Toll Authority, or BATA, an MTC sister agency that manages toll revenue and FasTrak, have taken the first steps to lighten the burden of toll penalties. As part of a new equity action plan adopted earlier this year, BATA recently voted to sharply cut late-payment fines and fees and take other steps, such as reducing the cost of getting and using a FasTrak toll tag.

This week, a BATA committee will discuss further steps, such as how to create payment plans for those with high levels of toll debt.

Under a series of measures approved by Bay Area voters over the last three decades, bridge tolls pay for ongoing maintenance of the region's seven state-owned bridges and serve as a source of funding for billions of dollars of other highway, transit and transportation needs around the region. Toll penalties have been imposed, in large part, to guarantee revenue needed to repay bonds issued to fund those projects.

The penalty system

The penalty system works like this: When drivers cross one of those seven bridges, they're charged a $6 toll. Drivers can pay with a FasTrak toll tag or a FasTrak license plate account, both of which require registration and a prepaid balance.

If drivers don't have a FasTrak account set up, cameras capture their license plate numbers and send an invoice to each vehicle's registered address. (When this cashless toll system took effect at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, every crossing generated a separate invoice, resulting in a blizzard of notices sent to non-FasTrak users. Now, the system generates just one invoice per vehicle per month.)

Drivers currently have three weeks to pay their toll invoices. But under the system that had been in place before the recent BATA changes, failure to pay on time would result in a $25 penalty for each bridge crossing on the invoice. For example, paying late for 10 bridge trips would result in $250 in late penalties plus the original $60 in tolls owed, for a total of $310.

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If that bill were to remain unpaid for 60 days after the first notice, drivers would get a "second notice of delinquent toll evasion," and FasTrak would tack on an extra $45 per crossing — adding up to an additional $450 in penalties for 10 bridge trips, or $760 in all.

At that point, if the bill still remained unpaid, FasTrak could turn the account over to a collection agency or to the DMV for a registration hold.

BATA's new policy cuts the first-notice fee from $25 to $5 per crossing, with second-notice fees dropping from $45 to $10, for a total of $15 in penalties. In the 10-trip example, that would drop the total owed in tolls and penalties to $210 for those who incurred second violation notices — still more than three times the original toll. The new fee schedule is retroactive to Jan. 1, 2021. FasTrak will issue refunds to those who paid penalties this year at the former higher levels.

The new policy does not cover the Golden Gate Bridge, which is owned and operated by a separate transportation district and uses the FasTrak toll collection system with the higher penalties in force. That district says it's "evaluating options and impacts associated with reducing the penalties for unpaid tolls."

FasTrak monitors license plates, not individual drivers, so it's hard to say with any certainty how many people may be buried in toll debt. But MTC statistics show that between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, 2021, 6,000 vehicles had racked up 75 or more unpaid tolls. The minimum total due for each of those vehicles, including added penalties for failure to pay on time. would be $5,700.

Bills that high, or even higher, are not hypothetical. Public commenters at BATA meetings last month testified to bills that have reached into the tens of thousands of dollars.

'A Kafkaesque bureaucracy'

Paul Briley, who lives in the East Bay, told the panel that his troubles started when Caltrans pulled toll collectors from the bridge at the start of the pandemic. Since then, he said, FasTrak violation notices were sent to his old address rather than his current post office box listed with the DMV, with $588 in missed tolls mushrooming to a debt of more than $6,500.

"I have a reputation for paying my dues," Briley said. "If there was still a person in the booth, I would have paid my dues ... whereas now I have to come and find you and pay you your money. And if I don't have your money, you're telling me you want 10 times the amount."

Kelly Cadwallader, the Alameda resident, said $2,500 in missed toll payments for her have ballooned to $31,000 in penalties. FasTrak has sent her case to the DMV, she said, which has since blocked her vehicle registration.

"A lot of this is my fault," Cadwallader said in an interview last week. She said she racked up the unpaid tolls — which date back to before the pandemic and aren't eligible for the lower fees BATA just approved — during a period where she had lost steady employment and was working as a gig driver to make ends meet. A single parent, she said the sheer scale of the debt leaves her with few options.

"What am I going to do?" she asked. "I'm going to be forced into bankruptcy."

Cadwallader's inability to register her vehicle makes her situation even more precarious.

"I'm driving a car that can be taken away from me at any time, a 2015 Honda Civic that I have two more payments on," she said. "At any moment, any time now, I could be pulled over and that car can just be taken away from me and it'll be gone."

Scharf, Cadwallader's attorney, said the process of trying to work with FasTrak to get penalties reduced or to have clients pay off the original tolls they missed is also flawed.

"I have multiple clients where we said, 'Let me pay you, please let me pay you the tolls. But as long as you're charging me $70 penalties on each toll, I am not in a position to pay off my complete balance,'" Scharf said.

"It's a Kafkaesque bureaucracy — each person you talk to has a different understanding of what the policies are," he said. "Some people believe that there's payment plans available. Some people believe that you can get fines and penalties reduced at least once in your lifetime. Other people are very supportive and helpful with trying to reduce people's outstanding balance. But the penalty structure that exists is ineffective because it prevents many people from making the base payments."

Denney from SPUR, and others who have examined the impact of toll penalties on lower-income drivers, say they welcome BATA's vote to reduce fines, but argue that reforms need to go much further. Among other problems they say BATA needs to address are making the FasTrak billing and notification system more reliable and creating payment plans for those who need more time to pay their accumulated tolls.

"I think chief on that list for me is establishing a payment plan for people for both unpaid fines and unpaid tolls," Denney said. "So people can pay over time what they owe in a way that's realistic for them."

He says FasTrak can borrow from other agencies to improve its notification system. “We have great evidence from other states and places where they do everything, where you get a text, an app notification, an email and a mailed letter every time you pass a toll bridge," he said. "I would love to see them building on that."

No relief for lower-income drivers

Those types of changes are also top priorities for Anne Stuhldreher, who heads San Francisco's Financial Justice Project, a city-funded office aimed at reducing the impact of government-imposed fees and fines on residents with lower incomes and communities of color.

"Right now, there's no payment plan offered," Stuhldreher said. "So if someone misses these [violation] notices, what they owe can add up quite quickly and exceed their ability to pay it. ... There's no relief option for people with low incomes."

She says even the reduced penalties weigh heavily on drivers with lower incomes.

"I think it's really important to keep in mind who's going over the bridge these days," Stuhldreher said. "It's not people like me who can often work from home. It's essential workers. It's people who are working at schools or working in hospitals, it's service workers. That's really who these penalties are hitting right now."

In addition to recommending the use of payment plans for toll debt and improving the system of violation notices, the SPUR report calls on BATA to grant amnesty on all existing toll debts; cut fines to a maximum of $3 per violation; limit the total fine imposed against each driver to a maximum of $100; end the use of DMV holds and collection agencies; and develop a system of discount tolls for drivers with low incomes.

'An issue of fairness'

John Goodwin, a spokesperson for BATA and the MTC, said the evolving FasTrak equity plan is trying to address the fact that toll debt "falls disproportionately on people of lesser means." He said one challenge is doing that while meeting the bridge agency's obligation to bondholders and not letting those who would have no problem paying but simply refuse to off the hook.

"It's an issue of fairness, that we're all in this together," Goodwin said. "There are some folks who just don't want to play by the rules and we need to have mechanisms in place."

Nick Josefowitz, the MTC's vice chair and SPUR's chief policy officer, said there should be "no tolerance" for drivers who are simply taking advantage of the toll payment system to get free rides across the bridges.

"But we can't create a system which is only designed for them and ends up creating huge, additional, disproportionate burdens to low-income people. ... Government agencies shouldn't be driving people into poverty because of mistakes they've made, especially mistakes that are so small, like forgetting to pay a toll or not updating their address at the DMV."

Nov. 17: This story has been edited to correct the revised toll penalty schedule adopted by the Bay Area Toll Authority in October 2021. BATA's new policy cuts the fee for the first notice of a late toll payment from $25 to $5 per crossing, with second-notice fees dropping from $45 to $10, for a total of $15 in penalties per crossing.

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