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Toll officials draw a blank on cheats tally
By Joseph Ryan | Daily Herald Staff

Signs lead drivers to various pay lanes on the Jane Addams Tollway in Elgin.

 

Mark Black | Staff Photographer

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Published: 1/8/2008 12:18 AM

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How many tollway drivers don't pay tolls?

How much money do toll cheats owe the state tollway?

Pose these questions to Illinois tollway officials and they can't give an answer -- even though the data is key to running the agency's budget and Open Road Tolling program.

Does this information gap matter to the average tollway driver?

Absolutely, say motorist advocates and some suburban lawmakers, because this is the same agency that is aggressively going after toll cheats and has its eyes on expanding toll roads throughout the area.

"That goes right to the core of what they do," said state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat. "Those are pretty significant issues that need to be addressed."

The information gap is among the problems revealed by a Daily Herald investigation of the tollway's toll collection system. Other issues include:

• Fine notices are sometimes sent to the wrong addresses.

• The system can't accurately read numerous licenses plates.

• Out-of-state toll scofflaws face much more lenient penalties than in-state drivers who skip tolls.

• The tollway's hearing process for drivers appealing their fines is unfair and arbitrary, critics say.

More Coverage

Meanwhile, some drivers have racked up thousands of violations yet have not paid up. A combined $2.2 million is owed by the top 50 tollway violators for blowing through a total of 31,428 tolls.

Such problems, experts say, reduce the tollway's credibility after its breakneck expansion of I-PASS and as officials study a possible major expansion of toll roads throughout the region.

As for the lack of toll violation data, tollway officials blame a mix-up in switching companies that run the violation and I-PASS programs. It stems from the same computer problems that forced the tollway to stop sending out violation fines for 13 months.

Suburban lawmakers and motorist advocates were stunned by the absence of such relevant information. Terry Pastika, president of the good-government group Citizen Advocacy Center, called it "absolutely outrageous."

"The fact that the agency is unaware of their own in-house accounting, but on the other hand has this aggressive fine enforcement, is absurd," she added.

Tollway spokeswoman Joelle McGinnis acknowledged the data would be helpful for budgeting and identifying where toll violators are abusing the system the most.

"There have been a lot of changes to our system," she said in explaining the problem.

But she said the lack of data has not hampered critical tollway operations, such as passage of the 2008 budget or I-PASS management.

File error!

The tollway has been without complete information on toll cheats and violation rates since about summer of 2006, before the agency finished expanding Open Road Tolling -- which made it much easier for drivers to skip out on tolls.

Back in June 2006, before a new contractor took over the system, the tollway was able to provide the Daily Herald with violation rates for specific plazas on specific days down to a 100th of a percent.

For example, the Edens Spur toll plaza had one of the highest violation rates that month at 3.87 percent.

But now, tollway officials say they can only estimate that their violation rates fall somewhere between 3 percent and 10 percent, which is the national average range.

Such data could be used to determine if signage for the Open Road Tolling lanes is perhaps confusing drivers and leading to a spike in violations.

The data would also show if the full expansion of Open Road Tolling led to a significant increase in toll cheating. When the contractor took over, the tollway was about halfway finished switching old barrier plazas for new highway-speed I-PASS lanes.

McGinnis acknowledged the data would be helpful, and she said the agency hopes to get the information soon. She didn't provide a specific projection.

"The tollway is always looking for ways to better educate our customers," she said about using violation rates to determine the best signage at Open Road Tolling sites.

On the budget side, the tollway also doesn't know how many tolls are not being paid or how much money could be expected to come from fines, which started going out again in August after an unexpected 13-month hiatus.

For next year, the tollway has penciled in $20 million in expected revenue from toll cheats. However, violators owe the tollway at least $42 million, according to the latest figures gleaned from violation notices that had been sent between August and mid-December.

McGinnis said the $20 million amounted to 3 percent of the revenue generated from tolls, a "standard formula that finance uses."

The computer system can't provide data on how much is owed in total because the backlog of violations hasn't been completed yet, McGinnis said.

Avoiding paying up

The tollway does know how much money toll cheats owed before 2006: $78 million, a figure that paints a picture of both the breadth of violations and the problems in chasing obstinate toll cheats.

The $78 million -- assessed to 92,000 accounts -- has been sent to collection agencies, which have been able to get payments from only 20,000 drivers, amounting to $8 million, or just 10 percent of the tab.

Some accused toll cheats owe as much as $60,000. The top 50 tollway violators owe a combined $2.2 million for not paying a total of 31,428 tolls.

McGinnis said scofflaws in these categories have often changed addresses and phone numbers repeatedly to avoid paying up. The Daily Herald could not locate any of the top 50 violators.

"These are folks who knowingly drove through without paying and have ignored numerous letters and the suspension of their driver's license and license plates," she said. "It is not surprising they would continue to ignore the attempts of collection agencies as well."

Still, some critics say the Daily Herald's investigation also calls this premise into question. They say some of those on the hook for heavy fines may not have been notified before the missed tolls escalated to insurmountable heights, giving them little choice but to flee the law.

"I think there are a lot of ordinary people who make some kind of mistake or miss the notices for some reason," said Jim Baxter, president of the National Motorists Association. "They don't deserve to be beat over the head."

Tollway officials say there are enough safeguards to prevent a law-abiding driver from racking up significant fines. If there ever is a real excuse, such as fines that were sent to the wrong person, a phone call to the tollway can straighten out the issue.

Above all, tollway officials say they are acting in the best interests of their paying customers.

Drivers who miss a toll can pay it online or through the mail within seven days to avoid a fine. And the first two missed tolls are considered mistakes and result in no fines.

Frankly, tollway officials say, the system is relatively sound and enforcement must be strict to ensure people keep paying when there are no longer gates to stop them.

"We give you the benefit of the doubt of making a mistake," McGinnis said. "People out there just don't have tolerance for toll violators when they are paying their fair share every day."

Tolls of the future

Tollway officials announced last month that they would look at building a Route 53 north extension, the West suburban Prairie Parkway, the O'Hare western bypass and the south suburban Illiana Expressway.

They also are considering tolls on the Eisenhower Expressway and raising fees during rush hour to discourage congestion.

The success of all these projects hinges on Open Road Tolling, which eliminated backups caused by cars lining up to pay their tolls in favor of electronic charges. If the electronic system that catches toll cheats in I-PASS lanes isn't sound, experts say, the public may find it that much harder to accept the expansions officials envision.

"This will really erode public confidence in (the tollway's) ability to carry out what they are supposed to do," said Joseph DiJohn, director of the University of Chicago's Metropolitan Transportation Support Initiative.

"It will make it very difficult to get public support" for future projects, he added, if the problems aren't fixed.

Yet, electronic toll enforcement across the nation is still in its infancy and problems are not unexpected, said Neil Gray, director of government affairs for the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.

"There is really not a handbook of best practices," he said.

Erring on the side of strict enforcement is usually a good practice, he said.

"If people know that your system is not tight, they are prone to test it themselves, and if you have a strong enforcement system, it makes it fair for everybody," he said.

Regardless, McGinnis said the tollway will be open to changes and improvements to its violation enforcement system should better technology or policies become available down the road.

"The system is continually evaluated, and we are always looking for ways to improve it," she said.

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