Wolf, 43, gets to her job everyday in Bayonne, New Jersey, by crossing the Verrazano and Bayonne bridges. She usually pays for the tolls using her E-ZPass.
Before the cashless tolling system was implemented at New York’s bridges and tunnels last year, when she went through a toll she would be alerted if her pass had a low balance. But since cashless tolling went into effect, she didn’t know when to replenish her account.
Last November, Wolf received a letter warning her that her registration would be suspended in a month if she didn’t pay the fees she had unknowingly collected.
“I got hit everyday going through the tolls not knowing that it wasn’t generating on my E-ZPass,” she said.
She had accumulated $2,000 in penalties. Every time she went through a cashless toll without money in her E-ZPass account, she was charged $100 for the Verrazano and $50 for the Bayonne, even if the toll was $17.
Wolf’s ordeal is one that state lawmakers are trying to prevent. Last Thursday, State Senator Leroy Comrie and Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato called on the MTA and Port Authority to enact specific changes to make the cashless tolling system more transparent and effective for consumers.
Both Queens legislators said many residents have complained about not being informed in a timely manner that they were received fines going through the tolls. Some commuters ended up paying down the tolls they missed, but not the violation fees.
“The system is broken,” Comrie said. “It’s not consumer-friendly, it doesn’t make sense.
“Nobody has an extra $2,000 to give to the state for violations that they should’ve gotten proper notice on,” he added.
Pheffer Amato said her office has been dealing with the issue since May. It’s especially a problem Rockaway residents who have to use Cross Bay Bridge to get to work or school.
She blasted the MTA for not giving enough time for a public education period so drivers can learn about it.
“That was forced down our throats, given to us without any education,” she said. “They implemented the system and – bang! –by the next day, people were getting fines and violations.”
The issue is even more complicated for someone like Wolf, who has to deal with two state agencies to address one problem, one with a high cost.
“We’re not talking about nickels and dimes,” Pheffer Amato said. “We’re talking about hundreds of dollars of real money out of our constituents’ pockets.”
In response, Comrie proposed legislation last week to enact a six-month amnesty program with outreach components modeled after the one recently done on the Tappan Zee Bridge. He also called for a publicly disclosed, consumer-friendly fee waiver policy and capped fees.
The southeast Queens legislator said he doesn’t want the violation fees to be more than double the original charge for the first three months. After that, Comrie said the fee should not be more than three times the toll for the four to six-month range.
He also criticized the online portal the E-ZPass system uses when visitors have to pay fees. Unlike when someone receives a parking or traffic ticket, the E-ZPass system doesn’t allow users to find all of their violations in one place.
“Their website needs to be totally revamped and updated so if you put in your plate number, any violation you have should show up,” he said.
So far, 13 legislators have signed onto Comrie’s bill.
“Cashless tolling is a good thing if it works,” he said. “But it’s not working to help the consumers right now.”
Wolf’s situation is a prime example. She was frustrated that there was only one E-ZPass facility, located in College Point, and that most people had to wait several hours.
She was told to make an appointment for a hearing, but was then informed that she would still have to pay the $2,000 violation fees, even after she paid off all her tolls.
When she wrote a letter to appeal their decision, the state authority said they never received it.
Wolf said she still goes to the E-ZPass facility every few weeks to pay off her fees.
“It’s put me into debt,” she said. “I’m just paying and paying right now.”