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Tobin Bridge toll evaders face hefty fine

Email|Print| Text size + By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / December 9, 2007

Used to be that if you had no cash while crossing the Tobin Bridge into Boston, you got an envelope to send in the toll money you owed. These days, it could be $50 a pop.

Revere resident Jan Dumas took the hit twice in one day when she said her Fast Lane transponder failed and she had to back up her car to go through a cash lane - only to find she didn't have any money. So, she got two $50 fines: the first for trying to go through the Fast Lane unsuccessfully, and the second for going through the cash lane without paying.

Brenda MacDonald of Canada only got fined once. It was last December when she arrived at the tollbooth but couldn't find the wallet in which she always stores a little US currency. The Canadian $10 bill she offered the toll collector didn't go over too well.

Thousands of others also have been stung by the policy, which was instituted just over a year ago by the Massachusetts Port Authority to cut down on the number of inbound drivers not paying at the booth. So far, it's working.

Rick Handman, an assistant director at Massport, said toll workers now are doling out about half as many violations a day as they once did.

"It was a courtesy to people who didn't have any money, and we found that was being abused and we were giving out 80 [envelopes] a day," Handman said. "Some people would save their envelopes until the end of the month, add them all up, and send us a check . . . and it was costing us more in administrative effort than we were collecting from the $3."

Under the Failure to Pay Toll Violation Program, 11,624 drivers received "violation information statements" for the $50 fine, handed out at the toll booths, from September 2006 to August, according to numbers obtained from Massport by the Globe through a public records request. About 200 fewer drivers then got a mailed violation notice with payment instructions, according to Massport.

Not all drivers must shell out the full $50 fine.

First-time Tobin Bridge toll offenders pay $6 if they settle their fine within 21 days of receiving the mailed notice. As of August, 5,419 drivers had paid the $6 or had their fine minimized for another reason, Massport numbers show. The original $50 fine goes up the longer it's unpaid. After the first 21 days, drivers must pay an additional $5. After 45 days, an additional $15 charge is levied.

Judy Hankins, a Lowell resident, doesn't care how much her fine is. She's not paying.

"It's absolutely ludicrous that they would just assume you should pay a $50 ticket," said Hankins, whose daughter went through the toll in Hankins's car after getting lost on the way home from a job interview. "Ten dollars, $15 [sure], but $50 is absolutely ridiculous . . . it's 16 times the original toll."

Through August, Massport collected $206,552 of revenue in no-pay toll violations. However, agency spokesman Matthew Brelis added, Massport records also showed that the agency had lost $44,708 in revenue from unpaid tolls in that time frame. In addition, Massport is paying a data collection agency $30,595 to record violation information sent in by toll workers, and to track down vehicle registrations.

Take all that into account, according to Massport, and the agency has netted $131,249 from the program.

Some drivers have been frustrated by the new program - because of the high price and what they described as a convoluted payment process.

Jason DuBose was driving home to Pawtucket, R.I., when he tried to cross the Tobin but realized that he couldn't get to his wallet, which he'd locked in the trunk. Because his violation notice was mailed to the company from which he leases his car, DuBose didn't get it until the fine had been upped to $55. He ended up paying the $6 reduced fee, but only after contacting Massport.

"I had to write a letter to them explaining exactly what had happened," DuBose said. "It would have been nice if someone had given me an envelope that told me right there what I had to pay: $6."

Dumas said she tried to appeal both her fines but ended up paying $100 total to settle the tickets after getting a response from Massport on only one of the fines.

"I tried to challenge them . . . and the response I got back was that I should have known I didn't have the money available to go through the booth," she said.

And what if you are one of the 1,650 drivers Massport currently counts as not paying their toll at all? After 60 days, Massport sends your license and registration information to the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles for nonrenewal. Out-of-state drivers have their information sent to a collection agency.

Hankins, of Lowell, may be one of those 1,650 drivers. She hasn't paid the fine her daughter received several months ago. Nor will she appeal, she said. Massport numbers show Hankins wouldn't have much success.

The agency received 263 appeals by mail from September 2006 to August and held 12 hearings. All appeals were denied, according to Massport, though an unspecified number of fines were reduced.

Despite the odds, David Russo of Watertown is fighting the Sept. 21 ticket he received in the mail. After all, Russo said, he and his 1995 purple Saturn were nowhere near the Tobin when his vehicle was supposedly photographed dodging the toll.

"I was here, right where I am now: at my desk at work," said Russo, a federal Medicare employee with the payroll records to prove his whereabouts. "I'd love to see a photocopy of the photograph they took of that car. . . . I just don't use toll roads."

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com.

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