Drivers who miss paying express lane tolls fined, summoned to court

(WJLA) - If you've missed paying a toll for driving in a I-495 Express Lane, you might not want to just shrug it off.

Some drivers are reporting getting bills in the mail, steeped with excessive fines for missing a toll -- fines that only go up, the more days that go by.

Local resident Michael Joy found himself in just such a situation after accidentally getting in an HOT lane when they first debuted.

When he shrugged off paying the fine, he found himself threatened with steep fines and even a court case.

"They are suing me for what started as a 65-cent toll," he told 7 On Your Side. "[Now] they've added a 100-dollar admin fee to take me to court."

Joy said he mistakenly ended up in a I-495 HOT lane just days after 7 On Your Side's November 2012 report showing how confused drivers were struggling with the new traffic patterns on the newly-opened Express Lanes.

"I'm looking around, and I'm inside the cones -- oh my God, I'm on the toll lanes -- what do I do?" Joy described. "There wasn't warning, there wasn't any gate."

Then, the bill came. It was 65 cents for the toll, plus a $12.50 administrative fee -- which is nearly 200 times the cost of the actual toll.

Marcia Morgan had a similar experience.

Morgan said she mistakenly ended up in the HOT lanes twice -- and like Joy, she wasn't happy with the bill she received later.

"I just thought it was excessive," she told 7 On Your Side.

Morgan said she decided not to pay it -- but that decision could end up costing her, big.

The administrative fee doubles to $25 per trip after 30 days, doubles again to $50 after two months, and doubles again to $100 after 90 days, which is when the driver gets sent to collections.

"When it got to 50 dollars for the admin fee, I{} thought it was outrageous... when I got the bill for $200, I just was a bit excessive," Morgan said.

So, what is a driver to do in this kind of situation, if they accidentally end up in an Express Lane, or don't have enough money on their EZ pass when they pass through?

Mike McGurk, spokesman for TransUrban, the company that operates the Express Lanes, says there is a five-day grace period in which a toll can be paid from the company's website, with a fee of just $1.50.

"You want to get in touch with us as soon as you can to take care of those escalating fees," McGurk explained. "Or, avoid them entirely by traveling with a properly mounted EZ pass with sufficient funds."

The problem with that is, it is not immediately noticeable when a driver with an EZ pass drives through an HOT lane and the pass doesn't register, or doesn't have enough funds on it to pay the toll -- and TransUrban won't tell you that happened until you get the bill in the mail.

When 7 On Your Side asked McGurk how much it actually costs TransUrban to process and mail those bills to toll violators -- and if it comes anywhere near the $12.50 administrative fee the company charges on the first bill -- McGurk said he "didn't have that number off the top of his head."

"You have a large infrastructure in place; those costs associated with the invoices go to paying for that," he answered. "It is a cost recovery effort, it is not a profit-generating process for us".

But Joy, who admits he didn't pay the bill when he first got it, sees it differently -- he got a court summons over that 65-cent toll, plus $200 in fees.

"I think they are trying to milk as much money from people as they can," Joy said.