Metropolitan Transportation Authority - Selected Aspects of Collection of Bridge and Tunnel Tolls and Fees

 

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NYS Comptroller

THOMAS P. DiNAPOLI

Taxpayers' Guide to State and Local Audits

Metropolitan Transportation Authority - Staten Island Railway
Selected Aspects of Collection of Bridge and Tunnel Tolls and Fees


Issued: November 14, 2017
Link to full audit report 2016-S-64

Purpose
To determine whether the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (TBTA) has taken action to collect unpaid tolls and fees, whether it has fully implemented the new Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) toll enforcement regulations, and whether there are on-site deterrents put in place by TBTA related to cashless tolling at the Henry Hudson Bridge (HHB). The audit covers the period November 1, 2012 through January 31, 2017.

Background
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is a public benefit corporation chartered by the New York State Legislature. TBTA, also known as MTA Bridges and Tunnels, is an MTA agency that operates seven toll bridges and two tunnels which interconnect parts of New York City. Created in 1933, TBTA serves more than 290 million vehicles per year and carries more traffic than any other bridge or tunnel authority in the nation. Toll revenues from TBTA help subsidize MTA’s transit and commuter rail services. TBTA’s total operating revenue for 2016 was approximately $1.9 billion.

For most TBTA bridges, drivers can pay tolls either in cash or by E-ZPass. E-ZPass is an electronic toll collection system that allows customers either to prepay their tolls or to automatically have tolls charged to a checking account at the end of the day. The system has three components: a toll tag (or transponder) that can be placed inside the car; an overhead antenna located in the toll lane, which reads the toll tag and collects the toll; and cameras to identify cars without toll tags. However, at TBTA crossings that are gated, the cameras are part of the toll violation enforcement system. TBTA is part of a consortium of 26 agencies in 15 states that participate in the E-ZPass system.

In addition to regular tags, TBTA also offers an E-ZPass On-the-Go (OTG) tag, which is a prepaid tag designed to make it easy for cash customers to try the electronic device. OTG tags are sold in the cash lanes of TBTA facilities, and allow travelers to open an E-ZPass account without completing an application or waiting in line. TBTA does not limit the number of OTG tags that can be purchased by an individual motorist.

For customers without E-ZPass who do not have sufficient cash to pay the toll at a TBTA gated facility, some lanes accept credit/debit cards; otherwise, a Deferred Toll Payment Request is issued. A Deferred Toll enables motorists to remit their toll payment at a later time either electronically or by check.

In November 2012, to improve efficiency in toll collection, TBTA implemented cashless tolling at the Henry Hudson Bridge (HHB). Cashless tolling uses the E-ZPass system, but replaces cash with Tolls by Mail. Under Tolls by Mail, cameras are used to take pictures of the license plates, and toll bills are mailed to the registered owners of the vehicles. To further encourage the use of E-ZPass, vehicles with E-ZPass tags issued by the New York E-ZPass Customer Service Center1 are charged a reduced toll each time they cross the HHB, while Tolls by Mail drivers are charged the current cash rate. Approximately 94 percent of the HHB drivers use E-ZPass. In 2015, total revenue for the HHB was over $71 million (including $8.5 million through Tolls by Mail).
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1 The New York E-ZPass Customer Service Center is operated by a third-party contractor and serves customers of TBTA, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, New York State Thruway Authority, New York State Bridge Authority, and the Buffalo and Fort Erie Bridge Authority.

In December 2016 the MTA announced that, as part of cashless tolling, it was moving to “open road” tolling by dismantling the toll booths from seven bridges and two tunnels by the end of 2017. Motorists no longer have to slow down or wait to pay a toll, or wait for the gate arm to rise in a toll lane.

To deter nonpayment of tolls, an administrative fee can be added to each unpaid toll. For example, at HHB, a $50 fee will be added to each Tolls by Mail toll 30 days after a second monthly statement is issued, if payment is not made. Also, a new regulation (New York Codes, Rules and Regulations, Title 15, Part 127.14) was implemented in January 2016 that allows the DMV to suspend vehicle registrations for owners with five or more unpaid toll violations on different days within an 18-month period.

Key Findings

While TBTA makes efforts to collect unpaid tolls, we found $11.3 million in tolls that were either written off ($5.4 million in OTG tolls) or uncollected ($2.3 in OTG tolls and $3.6 in Deferred Tolls). We determined that major portions of the unpaid tolls resulted from the following:

  • A listing of OTG tags as of November 22, 2016 showed 65,561 unregistered OTG tags with negative balances totaling $2.3 million (amounts owed by motorists whose tag use exceeded the original value of the tag). TBTA cannot pursue collection because no information about the individuals who purchased the OTG tags is available.
  • In February 2016, TBTA was owed at least $2.79 million in unpaid Deferred Tolls. We were advised that while there was a one-time effort to collect from nine egregious Deferred Toll violators, no additional action has been taken.

In addition, TBTA had more than $72 million in unpaid fees for the HHB from 2013 through 2015. TBTA officials advised that they consider the fees a deterrent, but have waived as much as 90 percent of fees due upon receipt of the payment of the unpaid tolls. Based on the informal nature of their analysis and the limited data to support it, it is unclear how rigorously TBTA has examined the options related to deterrence. With TBTA’s plan to have cashless open road tolling at all of its crossings by the end of 2017, the amount of fees assessed will substantially increase, and a more formal analysis of such options should be considered so that TBTA can maximize the amount of tolls collected without being unduly punitive on drivers.

TBTA also did not fully utilize the new DMV registration suspension program, as evidenced by submitting only a limited number of registrations for suspension each week after the initial introductory period. From April 28, 2016 to September 28, 2016 (23 weeks), TBTA submitted 225 plates for registration suspension. During this period, the total number of plates eligible for suspension was 4,645. As of May 15, 2017, the number of plates eligible for suspension had increased to 10,421, with 736 submitted to DMV for suspension.

Finally, regarding TBTA’s new open road tolling (ORT) system, officials indicated that the system has no mechanism to alert officials that a vehicle crossing its facility is on a toll violator list and should be pursued. In addition, TBTA officials stated that a “Hot List,” which would allow law enforcement to locate vehicles of out-of-state violators, was not implemented because other change orders for ORT and other New York E-ZPass agencies took priority. However, open road tolling has existed at HHB for over four years.

Key Recommendations

  • Revise the OTG tag program, either to require registration before use or to add additional controls, to prevent loss of revenue from customers who fail to register their OTG tags as required. Such controls can include (but are not limited to): collecting the license plate number of drivers who purchase OTG tags; limiting the number of OTG tags a customer can purchase; and maintaining a database to track the sale of OTG tags to prevent their sale to repeat offenders who do not register their tags.
  • Develop a system to collect the unpaid tolls that are in the Deferred Toll database, including (but not limited to):
    • Using the E-ZPass account management system to search license plate numbers to determine the mailing addresses of violators who are E-ZPass customers;
    • Using DMV access to determine addresses for motorists who do not pay tolls as required; and
    • Sending notices and assessing violation fees as with other unpaid tolls.
  • Partner with DMV to send pamphlets with motorists’ registration documents alerting them of the consequences of not paying their toll bills as well as options to use E-ZPass.
  • Evaluate options for fee collection to ensure that collections are maximized without being unduly punitive on drivers.
  • Examine resources allocated to weekly submissions to DMV.
  • Prioritize the implementation of controls relating to deterrence at sites where open road tolling will be allowed.

Other Related Audits/Reports of Interest

None


State Government Accountability Contact Information:
Audit Director: Carmen Maldonado
Phone: (212) 417-5200; Email: StateGovernmentAccountability@osc.state.ny.us
Address: Office of the State Comptroller; Division of State Government Accountability; 110 State Street, 11th Floor; Albany, NY 12236