How to Slam Toll Fees

Background

There are three main bridge-tunnel systems that allow travel between Norfolk and Portsmouth, Virginia. These are the Norfolk Midtown Tunnel, the Downtown Tunnel and Berkely Bridge system, and the South Norfolk Jordan Bridge. All three are set up for automatic toll collection. Toll collection is by either pay-by-plate or by E-Zpass.

In recent years, these systems have had to undergo improvements. The bridge-tunnel systems were old and in need of update and repair. Also, they lacked the capacity to support increased traffic between Norfolk and Portsmouth and points beyond. The local areas decided to solicit and award contracts to make these improvements. The systems are a combination of Interstate, United States Highway, and Virginia State highways, and are all heavily traveled.

In the last year or so, drivers in the area have been re-routed between the mix of tunnels as the improvements and emergency repairs are made. So, far there is always at least one of the three open for use.

Prior to 2014, these systems were a mix of free pass and toll booth crossings. They are now all toll systems, without the toll-booths.

Portsmouth Area Bridge Overview

Bridge-Tunnel Systems for Portsmouth, VA. (Snapshot of Google Map)
Bridge-Tunnel Systems for Portsmouth, VA. (Snapshot of Google Map)

SpreadSheet of Elizabeth River Tunnels Accumulating Fees -

Less than $50 in Tolls, can become over $800 total.
Less than $50 in Tolls, can become over $800 total.

So How Can This Be A Bad Thing?

Many folks in the Hampton Roads area are accustomed to stopping to pay toll. Tunnels are a fact of life there. Despite wide local advertisements that the collection system would be changing, not all have bought in to the E-Zpass system. The backup way to collect these tolls is Pay-By-Plate. E-Zpass is a pre-paid system. Pay-by-plate is an invoice by mail system. Pay-By-Plate takes effect when the pre-paid E-Zpass balance goes to zero. This is a potential for financial disaster for users of the tunnel system. Especially for those who lend their vehicles when they are not 100% aware that the borrowing driver will be traversing one of the local bridges. The overall result has been somewhat financially chaotic to drivers who travel between Norfolk and Portsmouth.

Recently, a man lent a vehicle to a friend. The friend and the lender both used the tunnel. The rest of this article refers often to the resulting invoices to discuss the ways fees accumulate.

The trouble comes when the user switches over to the pay-by-plate system, and the subsequent invoice arrives (or not) in the mail. Pay-by-plate incurs an immediate administrative fee above the normal toll. Normal toll is $1.00 (or $1.25). The administrative fee is $2.00. If you receive your bill in a timely fashion, and pay it in a timely fashion, your cost for using the tunnel is only three times normal toll. If not, and you get the next bill, a $5.00 fee is added. In this case you only pay 8 times the normal toll. If you are subsequently late on that bill, a $10.00 fee is added, and you are paying 18 times the normal toll. This takes less than six months.

By contrast, a home mortgage typically takes thirty years or more to merely triple in cost.

The key thing to note here is that these fees accumulate by individual trip through the tunnel. If any thing goes wrong when you go to pay the bill, the fees add up rather quickly. One recent instance had 45 trips through the tunnel adding up to a bill of $742.75.

But that was not the only bill that accumulated.

Returned Payments

Have you ever had a check returned because the numeric number did not match the written number?

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Two Collection Systems

The South Jordan River Bridge system also has a pay-by-plate system. The initial toll fee is $4.25 per trip. The invoice appears to be handed off to an agency located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for collection. This difference is confusing if you are not already familiar with the fee collection practices in the area.

In the one instance I’ve become aware of, a check was written to that collection agent. That check was rejected. The time in U.S. postal mail transit extended roughly two weeks, enough time for the original collector to charge additional fees. The subsequent fees are a bit different from the Elizabeth River Tunnels billing system described above. From their website: "After 30 days, a $20.00 administrative fee is added to the account and a second invoice is mailed. If 60 days elapse without payment, the account is assessed a $30.00 penalty and transferred to our Collections team". For the one case I noted, a check was sent, and rejected because the amount was off by half a dollar. If it had been accepted and paid out, all but $0.50 of the overall amount owed would have been paid. Instead it was returned. The subsequent additional charges are not known, since a phone call allowed a second attempt to write the check acceptably.

Authors Note: If and when it is available, I will add a summary of the tolls and potential penalties to this article.

Rules, Regulations, and News

The situation has been so bad that residents in the area have been reaching out to local news channels for help.

A local news channel support program called "10 On Your Side" has received complaints from local citizens regarding the rapid escalation of toll fees. Concerns raised by local citizens have indicated two things. First is that those fees accumulate really quickly. Second is that sometimes the folks who are billed are not even aware of the bill until the invoice showing accumulated fees finally shows up in the mail. 10 on your Side reports that they received a response from the Virginia State Attorney General’s Office indicating that the escalation of collection fees is legal under Virginia law.

There are two things that are not pointed out in the article. First is that two of the three tunnels are actually not State Roads, but are a United States highway and an Interstate. One wonders if they are subject to more stringent laws regarding the collection of toll fees. Who knows? The second is that there are actually two toll penalty systems in use in the area.

In discussion with some local residents, at least one pointed out that there have been times when the only tunnel available for transit is the South Jordan Bridge Tunnel (the larger fee tunnel). It is the one lone State highway that crosses between Norfolk and Portsmouth.

Perhaps an additional question that should be asked is: As a purely State Road is the South Norfolk Jordan Bridge (SNJB) subject to different rules and regulations governing toll collection?

While the initial toll fees are larger, it appears that the penalties incurred by SNJB are by account, and not by individual trip. For regular tunnel users in the area, this difference might be part of the reason that so many are disgruntled with the collection practices of Elizabeth River Tunnels.

Legislative News Background

Back in October of 2011, Virginia Watchdog.org put out an article on campaign contributions of toll booth operators companies to potential Virginia State legislators. The article was by Amanda Iacone of Virginia Statehouse News, and is linked at left.

The same website published an article entitled "Court Decision Clouds Future of Virginia Toll Roads" that was done by Kathryn Watson of Watchdog. That article is also linked.

Are toll booth operators employed for automated toll collection systems?

In at least one case in Maryland, lawsuits are being pursued to recover extremely large penalties and fees. See the video below.

At the time this article is written, there was a lot happening with respect to funding federal highways. In Northern Virginia, automated toll systems and State & Private partnerships are being considered for construction of new highways. Like the tunnels, the stated goal is to alleviate traffic congestion and increase the flow of traffic in the region.

Also, legislation is under consideration at the Federal level. A visit to www.senate.gov shows, that as of July 24, 2015, active legislation about Highway Funding is present in both the House and Senate. A program authorization for Highway Funding through December 18, 2015 is under House Resolution # 3038 titled “Highway and Transportation Funding Act of 2015, Part II”. This passed the House July 15, 2015 and is up for near-term action in the Senate. A second program authorization for Highway Funding through Fiscal Year 2021 is under Senate # 1647 titled “Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy Act”. It is called the DRIVE Act. Senators have a sense of humor. Who Knew?

Some Have Worse Fees

What Can We Do?

Because of this situation, letters describing the nightmares of these escalating tool fees have gone to the company in question and to the Virginia State Attorney General’s office. Letters have also gone to two congressional representatives from Virginia, both whose constituents might be affected by upcoming legislation.

In these letters to government officials, the opinion is offered that both the State government and the Federal government might go about collecting fees and costs in a manner that is more considerate to their constituents.

You too can write a letter to your United States Congressman or Senator, or even to your State government representatives. To be effective, you probably should indicate your experience with toll fees, the attempts you have made to resolve it, and the results of those attempts. The link below can help get you started on who to contact.

The video indicates that for at least one case, penalties would be capped by the toll fee collection company at $2200.

Summary

The quick summary is this:

  1. He who controls the maintenance on the tunnels decide which tunnels are open at any given time.
  2. Delays in sending bills (or delays in delivery) lead to a risk that additional fees will be charged.
  3. Hiccups in accepting payments risk additional fees.
  4. If laws are in place to prevent overcharging, be sure those laws are consistent, otherwise, refer back to step one of this summary.

There are three distinct systems in place in the Hampton Roads area to pay tolls and fees.

  • Prepaid E-Z pass offers reduced tolls, at risk of the prepayment running out and triggering one of the other systems.
  • South Norfolk Jordan Bridge offers a higher toll, with risk of penalties accumulating by account. This appears to max at $50 plus tolls.
  • Elizabeth River Tunnels offers normal tolls plus fee, with risk of penalties accumulating by individual toll, up to 18 times the original toll cost.

As opinion, I would simply offer the following:

  1. Private companies have profit as their goal.
  2. Governments don’t want to appear to be raising taxes.
  3. State/Private partnerships offer both.
  4. Either way, we pay.
  5. In some cases, accumulated toll fees become life-changing events. This seems excessive.

The word is that this is all legal.

1) If you happen to know the answers to any of the questions in this article, please feel free to comment below. Comments will be monitored on a reasonably regular basis.

2) This article will be updated fairly regularly while the author becomes more informed of the overall set of facts related to these toll and fee collection systems.

Follow-ups to Date

25 July 2015 - A letter to Congressman Bobby Scott of the 3rd Virginia Congressional District resulted in a reply letter that indicated the matter is referred to Congressman Rob Wittman. The author resides in the 1st Virginia Congressional District. The gentleman whose invoices were used as examples in this article actually resides in the 3rd Virginia Congressional District.

27 July 2015 - Once it was understood that the collection agents for ERT and SNJB were different, a phone call to SNJB arranged for a second attempt to write an acceptable check, without further penalty.

28 July 2015 A call from Congressman Wittmans' office indicates the concern will be forwarded to a Virginia State Senator (upper house of the Virginia State Assembly). Conversation indicated that the Virginia Department of Transportation is believed to have jurisdiction over tunnel and toll fee administration for all the roads mentioned above.

30 July 2015 - A call from Elizabeth River Tunnels and return call indicated they had received the original letter and that the bill can be settled for the original tolls and processing fees. That is happening (mail delivery system allowing).

08 August 2015 - For Visitors to the Hampton Roads Area - If you rent a vehicle and travel through the Hampton Roads tunnels, the bill for tolls may take up to three months or more after the rental is done before it comes to you. This is not an official notice, just an observation based on experience. Hopefully, this will not be an unpleasant way to remember the area.

PostScript

The man whose accumulated fees were used as an example in this article died in November 2015.

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Comments 2 comments

FitnezzJim profile image

FitnezzJim 16 months ago from Fredericksburg, Virginia Author

Thanks for reading Frank. I rarely pay tolls, and when I do it has always been stop at the toll booth and hand over the cash. Reviewing the notices from this one was a shock. The billing delays, the mail delays, and the delays because of a downturn in the mans health created a situation where the bill grew exponentially. That was a shocker to someone who never has had to deal with tolls.

It reminded me of the frog in boiling water story. To me it was a shock; to those already accustomed to the Hampton Roads area tolls it probably comes across as just a slow increase in the welcoming warmth of the area.


Frank Atanacio profile image

Frank Atanacio 16 months ago from Shelton

my goodness I didnt think tolls were that bad.. I mean the drama.. here in Conn. we have no tolls.. but the talks are in the works.. we had them a few decades ago, but they did away with them and added State tax.. now we're gonna have both.. another way to slam citizens....

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