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Taking a heavy toll
Tollway aggressively chases accused scofflaws, regardless of cracks in enforcement system
By Joseph Ryan | Daily Herald Staff

Open Road Tolling came with the promise of reduced traffic jams. It also came with flaws, including problems mailing violation notices, difficulty identifying some license plates and computer errors.

 

Mark Black | Staff Photographer

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Published: 1/6/2008 12:46 AM | Updated: 4/11/2008 10:29 AM

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Hunkered in her idling SUV outside the tollway's headquarters, Leslie Boudreau frantically sifts through papers that say she owes $4,619 for blowing $179.50 in tolls over the last year.

Pay up in two weeks, the papers say, or owe the tollway $15,739 and eventually lose your driver's license.

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Boudreau says she didn't know her I-PASS ran out of money last year because she thought her credit card automatically refilled it.

That doesn't matter to tollway officials. She is just one of hundreds of thousands of drivers who did not get violation notices for more than a year because of a computer glitch.

"It took them a … year to change the system, and they didn't send out any notices to anybody," said Boudreau, who is a psychiatric nurse in Naperville. "Now, I will take responsibility. But $4,000, $15,000! This is ridiculous."

Her potentially disastrous predicament is just one result of the tollway's repeated failures to implement a sound system to catch toll scofflaws.

A Daily Herald investigation into the toll violation enforcement system reveals problems that can catch drivers who thought they were paid up in a tangle of high fines and penalties while also letting some blatant toll cheats off the hook.

Consider:

• Toll enforcement cameras have trouble reading as many as 25 percent of Illinois license plates.

• A majority of cases appealed to the Illinois Secretary of State have been thrown out, mostly because of flaws in how the tollway notifies alleged violators.

• Illinois toll cheats are punished far more harshly than out-of-state scofflaws because drivers who live elsewhere are not subject to losing their driver's license or license plates.

• A 13-month gap in sending out violation notices is now landing thousands of drivers in financial and legal trouble. Yet the tollway is not considering payment plans as it did with similar failures in 2003.

• Tollway officials have not implemented a towing and booting system for violators, two years after asking lawmakers for the new power.

• The violation computer system is so dysfunctional, tollway officials have no idea how many people are cheating on tolls or how much money is owed.

The Daily Herald will detail these findings in a three-day series beginning today.

Tollway officials say the findings highlight relatively minor issues. They deny the system is flawed and point to a series of notifications and a lengthy appeal process that should prevent innocent drivers from being deluged by a tidal wave of fines and penalties.

"We have enough safeguards," said Matt Beaudet, head of the tollway's I-PASS and violation enforcement system. "I believe it is fair."

But others don't agree, including some suburban lawmakers, good-government groups, the state truckers association and a national motorist group. All are calling for reform in the wake of the Daily Herald's investigation.

"These findings require expedited treatment," said state Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, an Evanston Democrat and expert on tollway issues. "It is essential to maintaining taxpayer confidence that was so hard to come by after many years of questionable administrative practices."

Caught unaware

The violation enforcement system is key to Gov. Rod Blagojevich's new Open Road Tolling initiative, which eliminated barrier toll plazas for highway-speed I-PASS lanes that rely on cameras and heavy fines to keep drivers paying.

The tollway botched a critical element of the system when it failed to send out violation notices for the 13 months between July 2006 and August 2007.

Tollway officials blame the delay on a mix-up after switching companies that run the violation enforcement system.

Critics contend the delay is catching people like Boudreau -- who perhaps had an understandable I-PASS problem -- and hitting them with massive fines that have the potential to destroy someone's credit and livelihood.

"It is not appropriate to structure the system so that there is absolutely no possibility for the individual to overcome these massive fines," said Terry Pastika, director of the Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center, which has helped accused toll cheats fight the tollway.

"Of course, there is a responsibility of people who use the tollways to pay tolls. No one is debating that," Pastika added. "However, there is also a responsibility on the tollway to practically implement their violation enforcement system in an effective manner."

Moreover, some experts think the holes in the violation system highlighted by the Daily Herald's investigation could mean that a considerable number of those violations are falling on the heads of law-abiding drivers.

"Given this, I just wouldn't be surprised if a lot of the violations aren't intentional," said Jim Baxter, president of the National Motorists Association based near Madison, Wis.

Regardless, Boudreau said she would have known her I-PASS was dry if she had received a notice after her first three violations -- the way the system is supposed to work. Instead, the Oak Forest resident drove through tolls without paying 222 times over nine months, according to the tollway's records.

"I accept responsibility for the fact that I should have kept a better eye on my account," she said. "But this is just too much. How can they do this to me?"

Under Illinois law, the tollway has the authority to fine drivers going back two years. The law was written when the tollway still had gates on most plazas and a manual enforcement system that could take months to get notices out.

Normally, the tollway is able to send violation notices within weeks of a driver racking up three or more violations. But that quick turnaround evaporated when a new company took over in the summer of 2006.

Officials with the new company, Texas-based Electronic Transaction Consultants, said they didn't expect the switchover to cause such a long delay, but it couldn't be avoided. Switching companies turned out to be much more complicated than expected, said ETC director Tim Gallagher.

"Generally speaking, the Illinois tollway's violation processing system is one of the largest in the nation," he said after notices started coming out again in August.

Tollway Director Brian McPartlin has acknowledged that part of the problem was that the previous contractor, TransCore of Pennsylvania, failed to hand off the information properly to ETC.

Yet, despite more than a year of missed notices, McPartlin said he isn't planning a formal punishment or fine for either company. In fact, TransCore now runs the tollway's customer service center for I-PASS and toll violators.

No mercy

This isn't the first time the tollway has had problems sending out notices in a timely fashion, but it is handling the situation differently this time.

In 2002, the state's auditor general blasted tollway officials for failing to routinely send out violations over the previous two years. Tollway officials said at the time the job of sifting through scofflaw license plate pictures and matching them in a license database was too complex for in-house staff.

They hired TransCore to do it for $38 million over three years.

But that time, tollway officials offered toll scofflaws a one-time payment plan, allowing them to spread out payment of fines that accumulated over two years.

Drivers with fines between $500 and $2,500 could spread payments over six months, while those with fines above $2,500 could pay over a year.

After the latest delay in notifications, tollway officials are not interested in payment plans.

McGinnis said a payment plan was offered before because drivers were just getting used to the enforcement system. This time, she said, everyone should know they will be charged, eventually.

"There is no secret the tollway has a violation program and that violators are held accountable," she said. "A payment program is really not in the best interests of the tollway. We are not set up as a collections agency."

In the four months since violations have started going out again, more than 160,000 notices have been sent, encompassing some 2.2 million blown tolls.

About $46 million in notices have gone out so far for violations since July 2006, McGinnis said. The tollway has collected $4 million of that and has scheduled or heard some 2,000 appeals. The tollway could not produce data on how many of the appeals resulted in reduced fines.

Right now, violation notices are pouring out from the tollway at a rate of 3,000 a day.

The average notice has 14 violations and a tab of $280, which can increase to nearly $1,000 if not paid in about a month. The violator's license plate is suspended if the fine is not paid in two months, and then their driver's license is suspended after another three months.

McGinnis said it is not clear when the tollway will be caught up with the backlog.

That is not enough for suburban lawmakers, said Pastika and the National Motorists Association, who are all arguing for payment plan options in light of the tollway's inability to get violations out for more than a year.

"Under these extenuating circumstances … a payment plan that acknowledges the situation would be appropriate," Schoenberg said. "It will give people a chance to clean their slate, and it enables the tollway to realize revenues that would otherwise be more difficult to collect."

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