Cashless tolls horror stories: ‘I wept,’ woman says as she takes from IRA to pay bill

Lohud – by Peter D. Kramer

Editor’s note: The implementation of cashless tolling in the Lower Hudson Valley has brought howls of complaints from drivers who have told us horror stories. Some say they’ve never received bills, only to face thousands of dollars in late fees. Others told us about strong-arm tactics of collection agencies, about a faceless system that didn’t seem to care. Here are two of their stories.

Janet Berg considers herself a reluctant E-ZPass expert who came by her expertise one grueling, frustrating, bureaucratic encounter after another over the course of more than a dozen years.  

The Ossining resident says she was days away from having her vehicle registration suspended — for unpaid toll violations — when she was finally able to free herself from the shadow of the debt collectors.

All it took, she said, was taking a day off without pay from her job as an advertising recruiter in Irvington, six hours calling toll authorities and their shadow collections agencies, more than a few tears – and nearly $5,000 from her IRA.

Her hard-won expertise has led Berg to a conclusion: “E-ZPass is a cashless tolls scam” and a class-action-lawsuit waiting to happen.

‘You couldn’t argue with them’

Berg’s problems with E-ZPass go back years, to when she lived in Ardsley, and they spread across the tri-state area. She crosses the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge to visit family who still live in Rockland. She takes the Henry Hudson Bridge to get to New York City once a week. And she often goes through the Thruway toll plaza in Yonkers.

Her woes began, she said, in 2005 when she was clocked going three miles faster than the toll-plaza speed limit at the Henry Hudson. Once that happened, she said, it seemed like her car was flagged for violations, as a steady stream of orange notices began to arrive.

“The next time I went through the Henry Hudson toll, if I was a half-mile-per-hour over the limit, I’d get a ticket,” she said. Tickets for $50 quickly doubled to $100 “and you couldn’t argue with them.”

E-ZPass suspended her account for multiple speeding notices. She was told not to use her transponder and to use the cash-only lanes. She did as she was told, leaving her E-ZPass transponder at home.

It was then that she became an expert at license-plate readers.

“You do not need your E-ZPass in the car to make the link to your account,” she said.

She would drive through the lane that had a toll attendant, intending to pay cash.

“The woman (at the tollbooth) would say ‘Go through’ and I’d be like ‘I don’t have an E-ZPass’ and she’d say ‘You do, because it just went off. Go through.’”

The license-plate reader — which is trained to link up license plates to E-ZPass — determined that Berg did, in fact, have an account, and billed it accordingly. When the bill notice hit her account, the system flagged it as suspended and sent her a $50 ticket for trying to use her E-ZPass while it was suspended.

“There was no way I was going to pay,” she said.

A not-so-easy E-ZPass cure

When, in 2016, Berg was notified that her vehicle registration wouldn’t be renewed because of her toll debt, she took the day off, took out her notebook and picked up the phone.

She started at 9 a.m.

“I called the E-ZPass number. The woman said ‘I can’t help you with everything. I can only help you with what we have here. Some of it has been paid. Some of it hasn’t.’ She said she didn’t know everything I owed.”

Next came the MTA for the Henry Hudson Bridge.

“They told me how much I owed them but they said they didn’t know about everything. They gave me phone numbers for collections and I started calling collections for each of these areas. And I decided at that point that I was going to pay the collections ones off.”

Then the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for the George Washington Bridge.

Each agency has a different collections agency, she said. She navigated each one: E-ZPass New York and its collection agency; E-ZPass New Jersey and its collection agency; the MTA and its collection agency; the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and its collection agency; the Port Authority and its collection agency.

“I said ‘They’re telling me they’re going to suspend my registration’ and they said ‘Well, for DMV suspension, you need to call this number.’”

By then, it was 2 in the afternoon. After five hours of runaround, she did the only thing she could do.

“I wept,” Berg said with a rueful laugh.

“I didn’t know how I was going to pay it, but I knew I was going to take it out of my IRA because I just needed it to go away. It was very stressful to have those orange things coming.”

Having satisfied the collections agents, Berg got on the phone with a woman at the DMV registration revocation office, who listened to her cry and took action.

“She said ‘I understand this is a disaster’ and she cut the amount,” Berg said. “She couldn’t believe I had to pay all that money. She said she knew it was a huge issue. She cleaned me clean for New York, New Jersey, everything. I got lucky. I think she was so appalled.”

The DMV agent talked her through each violation that hadn’t been sent to collections.

The marathon day ended with a clean toll slate, and a retirement account that was close to $5,000 lighter.

Berg said she realizes there will be penalties for tapping the IRA for pre-retirement purposes, but ending the blizzard of orange notices and the stress of cashless tolls and E-ZPass was worth it. The letters have stopped. Her E-ZPass is in good standing.

But Berg is still furious about the way the system operated in her case.

“This isn’t just the cashless tolls,” she said. “This is that you have no recourse whatsoever and there’s no person to talk to. They are raking in money.”

A lawsuit in the making

The most frustrating aspect for Berg was not knowing how to solve it.

“If you get a regular ticket, you know what to do with it. You sign it or you don’t. You plead guilty or not guilty,” she said. “This is different. They want you to write a letter.

“That’s the part that seemed really out of control. They kept charging me things and deciding what to charge me and what was I going to do about it? I had to drive my car through the tolls.”

Berg said she thinks there are grounds for a class-action lawsuit.

“It’s a consumer issue. They’re taking advantage of us. It’s the ultimate highway robbery,” she said.

“They’re making us responsible for their inefficient system. What’s more inefficient than it going off, when you purposely do not have your E-ZPass in the car, and then getting charged $50?”

No recourse

Lisa Buckley of Nyack didn’t face the crippling fines others have seen. Nor did she have to dip into her retirement to satisfy her Tolls By Mail fines.

But her experience points to nagging inefficiency at the most-basic level.

“I was getting the bills in a timely manner and paying them in a timely manner by the due date, but they weren’t processing my payment until many weeks later in some cases and then slapping me with a fine for being late,” she said.

The late fees weren’t the whoppers some others have reported.

“It was just a simple late fee, $5 a month, which wasn’t a substantial amount, but they shouldn’t be charging me a late fee if I pay my bill on time,” she said.

When she called, she was told that E-ZPass had expanded and the system was short-staffed.

“It’s like ‘Why is that my problem? I’m trying to pay my bill and I’m doing it in a timely fashion, but I’m being punished for their inability to process payments.’”

She switched to E-ZPass and was refunded the late fee, but the bald inefficiency rankled her.

“I actually went so far as to file a complaint with the attorney general’s office about how Tolls By Mail was handling my payment,” Buckley says. “Their response was that, as Tolls By Mail is a state agency, the attorney general doesn’t oversee state agencies. You’re really in this situation where you have no recourse. You can’t go any higher. There’s nobody that oversees them effectively.”

The lack of oversight, of recourse for the consumers, has Buckley wondering if the old tollbooths might have been fairer.

“At least you had a way to opt out of all the system,” she says. “If you were having problems, you could be like ‘OK, fine. I’ll just give them my $5 every time I cross the bridge.’ Now you’re forced into the system. I feel that that’s problematic.”

Buckley says Tolls By Mail and E-ZPass represent a worst-case scenario — “the efficiency of the DMV with a for-profit bent to it. It’s the worst of everything combined into one agency.”

3 thoughts on “Cashless tolls horror stories: ‘I wept,’ woman says as she takes from IRA to pay bill

  1. Been there here in Florida. Got a bill for toll by plate with picture attached of plate sitting on the dashboard of a Semi that went thru a plaza. Plate # was for a trailer i owned. I went out to the trailer and guess what……………….. Plate was there. I called them and told them it was not my plate. They said yes it it is. I said NO it isn’t.. well you have to pay the toll and late fee. I will not. You will be fined more have to go to court. See you in court. A few days later i get a notice in mail. We reviewed the picture and have determined the plate is NOT registered to you.

  2. I can confirm these stories. This is why they are so careful now about verifying the address on our drivers “licenses.” Eventually they plan to charge us by the mile, thus tracking everywhere we go in a car. For me, a bill of $12.50 was sent to an address that isn’t even in the postal database. My little town doesn’t deliver mail to our homes. By the time I found out about it months later the charges were $215.00 and no matter who I spoke to there was no way to get these charges removed.

    Insurance scams [taxes,] income taxes, land taxes, parking taxes and now road taxes are just creative evil ways to steal our money and transfer it to (((those))) who already control the monetary system. Until we solve this problem once and for all, there will be many more taxes to come.

  3. “The next time I went through the Henry Hudson toll, if I was a half-mile-per-hour over the limit, I’d get a ticket,” she said.

    This kind of mammon collection cannot be tolerated. I remember when I was growing up, we used to make fun of the USSR and its “KGB”, now we live in a land flooded with foreigners, an enemy force in occupation posing as the government, and a rogue police state running rampant.

Join the Conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *