Illinois Tollway taking half a million deadbeats to court - after $300m in unpaid tolls + penalties
2012-09-06: The Illinois Tollway says it is owed around $300 million in unpaid tolls and penalties. Those uncollected debts are associated with about 550,000 vehicle owners as of July. By way of comparison in fiscal 2011 toll revenues were $686m, so the uncollected debt and penalties is over 5 months' toll revenues.
The Tollway gives the startling numbers in announcing a new program to collect unpaid tolls and penalties and to deter toll violations and non-payment. The Tollway today has announced it is starting a new legal tactic - filing its first "administrative judgements" in circuit court.
State law, the Toll Highway Act, authorizes the Tollway to "make rules" for civil enforcement of toll violations through "administrative hearings." It also specifies the fines and provides that tolls and penalties can be collected after 35 days by registering the judgment against the scofflaw debtor with the courts.
Previously the Tollway has left most collection of hardcore cases to contracted collection agencies and some of those work their way through the court system - which can take up to two years.
The Tollway has also used its power to get license plate of scofflaws suspended but a lot of toll debtors just continue to drive around with a suspended license plate.
The announcement today says that state police assigned to the Tollway will be under instructions to devote more effort to picking up unlicensed vehicles. Police cameras can be programmed with lists of license plate numbers so they provide an alert when one of them drives by the cop.
In the announcement today Kristi Lafleur executive director of the Tollway is quoted: "We are sending a clear and strong message to these chronic violators who use the Tollway regularly without paying: 'Your time is up.' Anything less would be unfair to the 98 percent of Tollway customers who pay their tolls on time.
The routine at present is to send violators a minimum five notices, to call them at least four times by telephone, offering them several opportunities to make a settlement agreement usually with a per-month payment plan to settle the debt. (see the detailed charts of the Tollway's violations processing and debt collection at the bottom)
Lafleur again: "We've continued to pursue these chronic violators by our own processes and by working with collection agencies, but now we have no other choice but to pursue them in court with them now owing our agency more than $300 million in tolls and initial fines."
Lafleur told us in a telephone interview today the problem has been developing rather steadily.
It hasn't suddenly got worse.
She had discussed the options with her board of directors and they agreed the Tollway needed to be more aggressive in debt collection.
For the first time the Tollway as a state agency is issuing its own "administrative judgements" against motorists who violate and have failed to pay up, simplifying and speeding up the legal process. The courts have the power to garnishee (take a deduction from) wages and salaries and to seize debtors assets.
Lafleur said to us: "Frankly I think there are quite number out there who make the decision to just put off paying us as long as they can... until they absolutely have to pay us."
She said the Tollway wants to be able to reach settlements with debtor motorists. Settlements may involve some forgiveness of accumulated penalties and a month-by-month payment plan.
But the Tollway has to be serious about going all the way if necessary to collect the debts in order to get hardcore bludgers to settle. ('bludger' is a British/Australian term for which there is no real equivalent in American english - it means someone expert in and dedicated to avoiding work while living off others - editor.)
The great majority of violators and non-payers are in-state and most in the Chicago metro area.
Lafleur: "We're largely a commuter system so our biggest problem is just local people and local businesses who think they don't need to pay. It just isn't fair to the 98% of those who do pay."
The Tollway later said the violators split is 88.8% Illinois, 11.2% out of state. That's about the same as the state origins of the average traffic stream, so the problem isn't greater (or less) with visitors than with locals.
Open road tolling
The great bulk of violations occur at the the Tollway's 22 mainline open road toll locations but there are also significant numbers at ramp toll points where there are no gates either - there are 52 of those in the 286 miles of thee Tollway. Almost everywhere on the Illinois toll system there are cash accepting lanes - either toll collectors or coin machines - alongside the dedicated transponder (I-PASS/E-ZPass) lanes.
Kristi Lafleur in our interview was keen to block any suggestion that the Tollway might have second thoughts about the wisdom of open road tolling in view of the numbers who run right through the open road toll point and then don't pay.
"I wouldn't trade open road tolling for (reduced violations/collections) challenge," she volunteered, adding that the average toll-paying commuter saves 2.5 hours per week compared to the time they used to spend to queue and pay the toll with cash versus open road tolling.
First level violations - simple failure to pay the toll by going through an electronic toll lane without a transponder - run about two percent of toll transactions, presently about 2.3 million/day (830m/year.) That's 46,000/day average (16.6m/year). Violation notices sent out are much fewer at an average of 3800/day (1.4m/yr.)
That includes some where a transponder isn't read and after imaging the license plate and looking up the account the toll can simply be debited to the I-PASS account.
Some violations get paid as missed tolls before the notices go out. Motorists have seven days to pay before being branded a violator. And most violations notices compile a bunch of violations.
Like a number of others around America the Illinois Tollway basked in the praise after converting stop-to-pay toll plazas to open road tolling five or six years ago - ending plaza backups was a huge improvement in the level of service to patrons - without fully realizing the new challenge of collecting the tolls.
Now many toll authorities are looking now at new ways to collect unpaid tolls - including shaming them by publishing lists of of the miscreants and what they owe. In New Jersey, and Texas they're working with the black lists to shame companies and people into paying up.
No data yet on how well that works.
The Illinois Tollway allows violators to go online and pull up time and date stamped pictures of their violation, so they can see there is (generally) strong evidence that can be used against them if they don't pay up.
There is certainly no going back to cash.
Even cash collection and a gate don't ensure everyone pays. Even at gated toll facilities toll collectors deal with a certain number of motorists who show up at the toll booth and say they don't have money. They can't be turned around in the middle of the toll plaza so the standard procedure is to note their license plate number and hand them a self-addressed envelope and an invoice, and wave them through.
And guess what? A lot of those invoices are never paid.
on how to pay a toll violation:
BACKGROUND: 37 years of age Lafleur has been the chief executive of the Tollway since April 2010. She was a nominee of Governor Pat Quinn and was previously on his staff in development issues. Earlier she ran her own business consulting group and became chief of staff at the state Department of Commerce.