Amnesty for unpaid toll violations - Illinois Guv

August 23, 2005
By Peter Samuel
Governor Rod Blagojevich
Governor Rod Blagojevich
Website for payment is http://vpc.illinoistollway.com
Website for payment is http://vpc.illinoistollway.com
Open road tolling has one downside - it is a temptation to cheats
Open road tolling has one downside - it is a temptation to cheats
CEO of the Tollway, Jack Hartman
CEO of the Tollway, Jack Hartman

The Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich has announced a 60-day amnesty on unpaid tolls and violation penalties. People owing the lliinois Tollway for the tolls and penalties (violations) can discharge their debt by paying anywhere between 50% and 75% depending on the number of violations. If they haven't paid at the end of the 60-day amnesty they will have their full violations debt reinstated and will be subject to fiercer enforcement, including referral of their debt to collections agencies, and seizure of their vehicle (booting, or towing and impoundment).

The amnesty was a legislative initiative, but Tollway spokesman Joelle McGinnes says the Tollway supports it: "It is a sensible and economical way for us to get a good proportion of the money we are owed." She said amnesties have been used by other Illinois state institutions to garner unpaid debt, but it is a first for the Tollway. So far as we know it is a first in the toll industry. (Please correct us if anyone knows of a precedent: petersamuel@mac.com)

The amnesty program payments are outlined in a new law (SB1964) which came into effect today when signed by the governor.

The amnesty has a sliding scale that requires violators with up to 25 violations to pay 50 percent of their original fines and tolls, violators with up to 50 violations to pay 60 percent of their original fines and tolls, and violators owing more than 50 violations to pay 75 percent of their original fines and tolls.

Executive Director Jack Hartman calls the amnesty program "a last chance for violators to settle delinquent violations and clean their slate."

We asked the Tollway about the extent of unpaid tolls and penalties. McGinnes told us the data she has is that there are over 160k cases of unpaid violations and over 90% of these are between $100 and $500. If the mean owing per vehicle-owner were $300 that 90% is $48m outstanding unpaid violation money. Total including the rest: $55m to $60m?

The Chicago Tribune apparently reported an estimate of the outstanding unpaid tolls of $50m. McGinnes calls all these estimates "not accurate" but she does not have an official Tollway estimate to offer. She points out that the amnesty itself reduces the indebtedness of violators considerably - by as much as a half, she says. (ADDITIONS TO ORIGINAL POSTING)

The Tollway is trying to make it as easy as possible for motorists to take advantage of the amnesty:

* they can go online at a special website http://vpc.illinoistollway.com and pay by credit card

* telephone toll-free 1-877 715-1235 7am to 7pm to pay by credit card

* pay by cash, cashier's check or credit card (no personal check) at the Tollway's Downers Grove offices

On the website entering the vehicle's license plate number will quickly throw up the motorist's current violations debt and also calculate the amount need to clear that under the amnesty. Telephone operators and cashiers will have access to the same information.

The website will continue on after the end of the amnesty but for collection of normal violations payments.

The Illinois Tollway only issues a violation notice after five violations have been picked up for any given license plate (CORRECTION TO EARLIER POSTING). Then it normally assesses the owner the unpaid tolls plus $20 penalty for each violation. That $20 penalty escalates to $70 if the initial notice is simply ignored. Under the amnesty some of the escalated penalties may be forgiven.

The Tollway instituted a new violations processing system in 2003 as part of an $11m contract with TransCore. This made more automated the issuance of violation notices and allowed a backlog of violations for which notices had not been mailed out to be worked off. McGinnis says some $43m in violations (unpaid tolls plus penalties) has been obtained under the program since it was begun - about 2.5 years ago.

The Tollway's 2004 annual report says $13m was collected from violators in that year in one place, $11m in another.

3 percent violation rate

Violations on the Illinois Tollway system run at about 3 percent of vehicle passes - about 60k/day of 2m transactions. Toll revenues are running around $450m/yr and at a 0.03 violations rate violations would cost $13.5m/year - if the average toll violated was an average toll.

Under the amnesty, a vehicle owner with

* 25 violations ($500 in fines) will pay $250 fine + all unpaid tolls (50% off)

* 50 violations ($1,000 in fines) will pay $600 fine + all unpaid tolls (40 % off)

* 100 violations ($2,000 in fines) will pay $1,500 fine + all unpaid tolls (25% off)

Under the new get-tough program the Tollway will the first time use local and state police to pull over and impound vehicles of those with outstanding violations. The Tollway has previously referred outstanding violations to the state motor registry office for suspension of license plates and rivers licenses, and that will continue to be used as a weapon against violators. McGinnis says that since 2000 more than 31k license plates and 3,200 driver licenses have been suspended for drivers who stiffed Illinois toll booths, according to state records. (CORRECTION MADE HERE TO EARLIER POSTING)

Deterrence the aim

The Tollway does not want to make money out of violations or enforcement, McGinnis emphasizes. They hope that those who presently violate will see that the Tollway is determined to collect tolls due and will pay up like 97%. The occasional violation, she says, is understandable as a result of human error, and that is the reason the Tollway only issues a violation notice after five detected violations.

The impoundment of vehicles of violators is not unprecedented, but has only previously been done on a very small scale and to habitual violators with large outstanding tolls and penalties. Delaware River Port Authority in Philadelphia impounded a bakery company van in pursuit of unpaid tolls and penalties of over $10k a couple of years ago. There have also been cases of violators vehicles impounded in Florida and Texas.

Vehicle impoundment provides good leverage in gaining a negotiated settlement of such debts.

As the toll industry moves to open road tolling (ORT) deterrence of violations becomes a more pressing issue. ORT has the downside that its very openness, many say, constitutes a temptation to motorists to fly through the ORT lanes without a transponder even though there are cash collecting lanes off to the side.

Illinois is converting all 20 of its mainline plazas to ORT over the next 2 to 3 years.

McGinnes says that the Tollway has long had scores of unattended ramp plazas with coin machine lanes that constitute a similar temptation to vioiate. She doesn't know that open road tolling constitutes a bigger problem particularly.

Motorists rarely fly by a toll collector in a manned booth, though that happens very occasionally too, we've been told.

In New York City, in Europe, Asia and Latin America gates are still in use, sometimes programmed for pychological effect only (they will rise when the vehicle gets close), sometimes not to rise at all until the toll has been paid. Most US toll agencies have long since got rid of gates, giving rise to the violations issue.

Other changes

The new law gives the Illinois Tollway specific authority to refer unpaid violations to collection agencies, something a number of toll agencies already do. And it makes it an offense to obscure your license plate in such a way that enforcement cameras are thwarted, and gives police powers to confiscate the plate and any obscuring materials or apparatus.

The new law also applies ethics rules of the state to the Tollway making it explicitly illegal for directors, employees or agents to use their position or employment with the Tollway for personal financial gain or advantage.

The announcement of the amnesty came in a press release from the Governor's office on his signing into law of the new Tollway bill.

After the New Jersey Turnpike the Illinois Tollway is the largest toll system in the US in a ranking by toll transaction volume. TOLLROADSnews 2005-08-22


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