Nicola Livic, of Redmond, Washington has a transponder on his car that is linked to a credit card that automatically pays his tolls when he crosses Washington’s floating Highway 520 Bridge. His credit-card number was changed by his bank due to a fraud threat, so his online account stopped working.
The motor-vehicle department also had his mailing address wrong, so when it tried to alert him that his tolls were in arrears, the letter ended up who-knows-where. Meanwhile, fees and fines were added, and compounded. By the time Mr. Livic realized the problem, he owed $3,545 to the state, less than $300 of which were the tolls.
He appealed the bill at the state Department of Transportation (DOT), and was told, in essence, “Tough.”
He is not alone. The system, in which a photo of a vehicle is taken as it crosses the bridge and the owner is billed, but without subsequent warnings or reminders if payment is overdue, is guaranteed—a conspiracy theorist would say designed— to generate snafus that the citizen is always going to pay for, and through the nose. The fine on each missed four dollar toll is $40, and over time, the fines turn into multi-thousand-dollar collection actions. Appeals go to an administrative review system set up by the transportation agency itself. This is what we commonly call “a conflict of interest.” The state makes an average of $65,000 just in fines on the 520 bridge tolls each day. It loves this system.
When the erratic system of billing tolls was being debated five years ago, a local judge saw right through it, and made a prediction.
“Since the birth of our democracy, it has been well settled that government cannot take from its citizens without due process of law,” Barbara Linde, then chief judge of King County’s District Court system and now in Superior Court, told the legislature. “In my view, it will only be a matter of time before an aggrieved citizen, and there will be many aggrieved citizens, brings a class-action lawsuit.”
Now that class action suit has arrived, claiming that the 520 bridge’s multiplied by ten tolling fines and rigged appeals process is unconstitutional, as well as in violation of consumer laws. “People are being gouged by the government in ways no private business could get away with,” says one of the three lawyer bringing the suit, attorney Mary Anderson.
Seattle Times transportation reporter Mike Lindblom believes that the judges who hear the case will take a dim view of “tossing citizens into an administrative process,” and will make a prophet out of Judge Linde, who predicted in her testimony that the state would probably lose such a suit, and would have have to repay toll penalties, triple damages and attorneys’ fees, probably amounting to millions of dollars.
This is why libertarians don’t trust government. It’s greedy, it’s often inept, and it generates bureaucracies that serve themselves, not the public interest.