SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The Golden Gate Bridge's electronic tolling system can lead to inflated nonpayment charges of $76, generating millions of extra dollars for the bridge and its private contractor, Xerox, a class action claims in Superior Court.
Lead plaintiff Michael Saliani sued the Bay Area Toll Authority, Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, and Xerox State and Local Solutions, alleging a scheme to charge drivers "inflated and outrageous penalties" for not timely paying the bridge toll.
In March 2013, the Golden Gate Bridge converted to an all-electronic tolling system, no longer giving drivers the option to manually pay the $6 toll to cross the bridge.
Drivers can enroll in the FasTrak program, which requires them to mount a transponder in their vehicle. As the vehicle passes through the Toll Plaza, an overhead antenna reads the signal from the transponder and money is debited from the owner's prepaid account. Approximately 85 percent of the vehicles that cross the bridge are enrolled in this program, according to the complaint.
Drivers not enrolled in FasTrak must pay the toll through the Pay-By-Plate program. Cameras at the Toll Plaza take pictures of the vehicles' license plates as they pass through and the toll is assessed by charging the owner's license plate account, receiving a onetime payment from the driver, or issuing a toll evasion violation.
The onetime payment can be made up to 30 days before crossing the bridge or within 48 hours of the crossing, according to the complaint.
Those who are not enrolled in the FasTrak or License Plate Account programs, and who do not make a onetime payment, are assessed a toll evasion violation that they must pay within 30 days, the complaint states.
"(V)ehicle owners who fail to pay the $6 toll within 30 days after citation - regardless of whether the vehicle owner actually receives notice of the toll evasion violation - are assessed a $25 penalty. Vehicle owners who fail to pay the toll and $25 penalty are assessed an additional $45 'delinquency' penalty. As a result, vehicle owners may be required to pay $76, or over ten times the amount of the toll, for each Golden Gate Bridge crossing," Saliani states.
Xerox, a private contractor, is responsible for providing the notices to vehicle owners, conducting initial reviews of toll evasion violations challenged by the owners, and imposing and collecting penalties, the complaint states.
Xerox and the Golden Gate Bridge "have implemented a policy for assessing toll evasion violations and imposing and collecting penalties in a manner that assures that vehicle owners cannot meaningfully contest violations and pay inflated and outrageous penalties. Xerox receives a bounty on all toll fees and penalties that it collects," the complaint states.
It is not uncommon for owners to never receive the toll invoice or to receive it late, because Xerox does not use "best efforts" to obtain accurate mailing addresses when sending out the first notice of toll evasion violations, the complaint states.
For example, the toll invoices are sent to the vehicle's registered address even when the DMV or U.S. Postal Service has updated addresses on file for that owner. When the postal service returns prior notices sent to an invalid address, Xerox continues to mail future invoices to the same invalid address, according to the complaint.
If the first toll violation notice goes unpaid for more than 30 days, a second notice is issued along with an additional $45 penalty. Vehicle owners then have 21 days from the issuance of the violation, or 15 days from the mailing of the delinquent toll evasion, to contest the fees. If they do not do so, they are deemed liable and in debt for the charges, the complaint states.
"The amount due is referred to the DMV, which places a hold on the vehicle owner's vehicle registration until the outstanding tolls and penalties are paid. Further, defendants may report the 'debt' to collection agencies and a civil judgment may be obtained against the vehicle owner," Saliani says.
In the 2013, thanks to the approximately 20,000 vehicles that cross the Golden Gate Bridge each month, revenue generated from the toll exceeded $100 million, the complaint states.
"Since the Golden Gate Bridge converted to an all-electronic tolling system in March 2013, penalties assessed on toll evasion violations have become an important source or revenue for defendants. Indeed, defendants released data showing that for the first four months of operation of the all-electronic tolling system, they issued 290,489 toll evasion violations and collected nearly $3 million in penalties," Saliani claims.
Saliani seeks punitive damages for violation of the California Due Process Clause, mandatory duty, unfair business practices, and negligence.
He also seeks an injunction requiring the Golden Gate Bridge and Xerox to refund fees and penalties to drivers, reverse any DMV registration holds, and provide owners with a fair and impartial review of their toll evasion violations.
Saliani is represented by Adam Gutride with Gutride Safier.