Cashless tolling at the city’s bridges and tunnels was supposed to be a win-win, reducing traffic, commute times and carbon emissions.
Toll booths were replaced by E-ZPass and license plate readers last year, but it wasn’t a win for Ryan Garofalo. It’s been a nightmare.
Garofalo, a Woodlawn Heights resident who travels the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, received unpaid toll violations on four separate occasions in August and September. The unpaid tolls were in the ballpark of $20, he said, but fees were more than 10 times that amount.
“The fines were insane,” Garofalo said. “We just accept these things as taxpaying citizens saying, ‘Gee, I have no recourse. I’ll just write a check for these guys.’”
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which oversees E-ZPass on bridges and tunnels in New York City — including the Henry Hudson and Bronx-Whitestone bridges — didn’t give much of a heads-up, Garofalo said. But the MTA disagrees.
The MTA issues violations if no funds are available when an E-ZPass is used. In the past, drivers were warned by a flashing sign at toll booths. Now that toll booths are no more, E-ZPass customers have been encouraged to receive mobile alerts through email or text messages, updating them with important messages like low balances, failed payments and credit card expirations.
The MTA also urges customers who make one-time payments to keep a close eye on their E-ZPass account so they know when to replenish it.
Violations can cost $100 at major facilities like the Whitestone, officials said. Tolls there range from $5.76 for those with E-ZPass, and $8.50 for drivers billed by mail. At the Henry Hudson Bridge, the rates are $2.64 and $6, respectively.
Driving on bridges and in tunnels without an E-ZPass can be tricky. Travelers who fail to pay their bill by the due date get another 30 days to pay, but incur a $5 fee. If after 60 days they still haven’t paid it, those fees jump to $100 for major facilities like the Whitestone, and $50 for smaller bridges, like the Henry Hudson.
The transition into cashless tolling “has improved safety throughout the system,” MTA spokesman Christopher McKniff said. “We work closely with our customers to help resolve any issues or disputes, and will continue our courtesy of waiving first-time violation notice fees upon full payment of tolls.”
But that system didn’t work out so well for Garofalo.
“I paid the bills like a fool,” Garofalo said, mailing a check to E-ZPass.
But E-ZPass claimed it never received the check, and Garofalo ultimately settled for $117 — half the original amount.
A couple of days later, however, Garofalo found E-ZPass had cashed the lost check — the day after he settled.
“Somehow they magically found and cashed my check,” Garofalo said. “So now I paid them twice.”
He tried explaining the issue to E-ZPass, but they weren’t listening, he said.
“This is a systemic problem,” Garofalo said. “There was no way I was the exception. It wasn’t a life-changing amount of money, but it’s unethical.”
Angry drivers aren’t just found crossing the Whitestone and Henry Hudson bridges. They’ve also complained about excessive penalties for toll violations at the Mario Cuomo Bridge, operated by the New York State Thruway Authority, said Frederic Klein, community liaison for Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz’s office.
“That’s problematic, especially because the sort of people that aren’t going to have E-ZPass, or don’t have auto-replenish set up, are going to be hit the hardest,” said Brendan Fitzpatrick, a Dinowitz aide. “A lot of these people simply cannot pay that much.”
Like the MTA, the thruway authority also launched an outreach effort in January to address concerns about billing, and even offer initiatives like an amnesty program waiving violation fees if tolls were paid in full.
But so far, those measures haven’t been enough to prevent drivers from racking up what the Assemblyman has called skyrocketing penalties.
“While I think that cashless tolling is a wonderful thing,” Dinowitz said, “the way it’s being implemented has really been a disaster. And it has to be changed.”