John Oravec crossed the Grand Island bridge 24 times one month, traveling between his home in Niagara Falls and County Hall in downtown Buffalo. He saw the bills in the mail but, as the owner of two small businesses, he's a busy guy and let them sit — for at least two months, he said.
He figured he would see some late fees when he sat down to pay his bill on the state's website, but he did not expect to see the $1,224 bill that was waiting for him when he logged in.
Like any other motorist who fails to pay their toll bill on time, he had been charged a $50 penalty for each $1 toll.
"$50 a pop? Really?" Oravec said.
Irate, he called the Thruway Authority.
"I just yelled and screamed for 20 minutes. I told them, I'm not paying it," Oravec said.
Eventually, the Thruway Authority reversed the charges as a courtesy. But Oravec's experience is a cautionary tale about the potentially costly fees drivers could face if they are late paying their bills for using the new cashless tolling system.
So how do $24 in tolls turn into more than a thousand dollars in charges?
After a first bill has gone 30 days without payment, the Thruway Authority sends a second notice, with a single flat $5 late fee added.
But if the tolls remain unpaid for another 30 days, the bill's status changes. It's now considered to be a violation, which makes it subject to much bigger penalties. A third bill then is sent, which assesses one $50 penalty for each unpaid toll.
It doesn't stop there. If tolls remain unpaid, a motorist can face going to collections and having their registration suspended.
Sam Magavern, executive director at the Partnership for the Public Good, thinks that system is excessive and puts potentially onerous penalties on working-class people. While cashless tolling is an improved method of toll collection he said, the penalties involved are disproportionately high, especially since the system is new and motorists are just getting used to it.
"People with low incomes who are living paycheck to paycheck — these kinds of penalties can drive people further into poverty," he said.
"We see that with things like traffic tickets and fines. Really serious things start happening," he said. "They lose their license. They can't drive to their job. They lose their job. It's a more serious concern than I think it might look like on its face."
A bill in the State Legislature called the Toll Payer Protection Act easily cleared the Assembly and Senate, but it needs to be signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to take effect. Under that legislation, the state would no longer be allowed to suspend a motorist's registration for unpaid tolls. It would also require the state to send out bills via first-class mail within 30 days and make it easier for drivers to dispute fees.
Jonathan Dougherty, a Thruway Authority spokesman, said the current system – which assesses penalties per toll rather than per billing cycle – was agreed upon by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Thruway Authority and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as the best way to deter toll avoidance.
He said the penalty structure is the standard throughout New York to make sure everyone using the Thruway pays their fair share and works to "combat toll payment evasion and chronic toll scofflaws."
Oravec, he said, is one of those scofflaws.
"He had this bill. He should have paid it," Dougherty said.
Dougherty also said the state gives travelers more than 90 days to pay their tolls before it considers them in violation. Signs leading up to the bridge warn of penalties and give motorists a number to call for more information. Notices mailed to motorists' homes also clearly communicate how to avoid violations, he said.
Customers who are hit with significant penalties and agree to sign up for the E-ZPass electronic payment system during the early days of cashless tolling at the bridges will have their penalties waived, according to Jennifer Givner, another authority spokeswoman.
"The No. 1 thing we stress is, if anyone is having problems, we encourage them to call and we will be more than happy to look into their accounts and work with them as necessary," Dougherty said.
How to avoid penalties:
- Get a prepaid "E-ZPass on the Go" at Tops, Wegmans, Noco, Delta Sonic, AAA or the Grand Island Town Clerk's office. It's ready to be used one day after you register it online, offers a 5 percent discount on the bridge tolls and can be used for tolls in 15 additional states, including Pennsylvania and Ohio. Drivers with E-ZPass also have the option to sign up for a pay-as-you-go plan that deducts tolls on a daily basis, rather than requiring an upfront deposit of $25 or more.
- Make sure the address you have on file with the Department of Motor Vehicles is up to date so your bill ends up in the right place. By law, you have 10 days to notify the Department of Motor Vehicles of a new address when you move.
- Pay your bill within 30 days of receiving it. You can do so online at TollsByMailNY.com or by calling (844) 826-8400. From a cellphone, you can also call **826 to receive a text with a link to information about payment options.