The Bizarre World of 520 Bridge Tolling

The state wants your money, whether it bills you or not.

Our madcap universe is rife with the inexplicable. Take the softball-sized eyeball that recently washed up on a Florida beach, or the pint-swilling grouch at a British pub who doused a wailing baby with beer because the kid was disturbing his lunch.

Closer to home, the 520 bridge offers yet another exquisite example of the incomprehensible.

Two years ago, when state transportation officials were rubbing their little revenue-starved mitts together trying to figure how they'd ever come up with the $4.65 billion needed to build a new six-lane bridge to link I-405 with I-5, some toll-happy troll (God only knows who) had the devilish foresight to insert this into Washington's Administrative Code: "Registered vehicle owners are responsible for paying tolls and the civil penalty whether or not they received a toll bill."

Really? How ingenious—almost as ingenious as tolling one bridge and not another, thus turning the I-90 bridge, several miles south, into a snarled nightmare.

The inflexible rule, enacted in December 2011, goes on to state that ignorance is no excuse: "It is not a defense to a toll violation and notice of civil penalty that the person did not know to pay a toll."

Lucinda Broussard, toll operations manager for the Washington Department of Transportation, recently told Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat that the state isn't even required to send out a bill at all—a bill is merely a courtesy notice. Hmmm. A courtesy notice.

Questing for clarity, we, who religiously pay our 520 tolls during our very rare sojourns to the Eastside, spoke last week with Craig Stone, the WSDOT's personable and engaging director of tolls. Stone said that an impressive 96.5 percent of the motorists who cross the floating bridge—where photo tolling commenced in January—dutifully pay the fiddler, a figure that includes the 81 percent armed with "Good to Go" passes.

The remaining 3.5 percent are hit with late fees—$40 civil penalties that accrue after 80 days for each unpaid $3 to $5 in toll bills, resulting in a dickens of a time trying to get a license plate renewed.

Then of course there are those—the brave-hearted, the justifiably outraged, or simply the serial scofflaws—who throw themselves at the mercy of solemn-faced administrative judges who've heard every excuse in the book, including the most popular: "I never got the bill." Stone can't quantify just how many people make up this category, but there are enough, like Pam Hammond, to rile the waters.

The Mukilteo woman told Westneat that she never got her bill for a May crossing, and, after confirming with the state that the bill had not reached her, figured it would be no problem to appeal the $40 fine.

Wrong.

"There's a backstory here," explained Stone, "and that's that she had a 'temporary away' status with the post office. So the bill was mailed to her, but she wasn't picking up her mail. So it's like not paying your American Express card; they're still going to tack on interest for a late payment if you didn't get your mail."

Yep, it's crazy all right—just like those softball-sized eyeballs.

 
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