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Virginia Motorists Fight Back Against Excessive Toll Road Fines
Virginia drivers form group to battle excessive toll road penalties.

Changing Lanes
Toll road users who have been slapped with five-figure fines over transponder errors are hoping to convince the Virginia General Assembly to their cause. Toni Cooley and Lisa Comras are motorists who had valid E-ZPass accounts who found themselves in a high-profile legal battle with tolling giant Transurban. The Australian firm demanded over $10,000 in penalties from each when credit card errors failed to account for less than a dozen trips taken on the 495 Express Lanes outside of Washington DC.

Although Virginia courts have, so far, sided with Cooley and Comras, they believe it is essential that the toll road fine statute be rewritten so that a private firm no longer has the right to set an "administrative fee" of $1000 for each alleged instance of failing to pay a $1 toll. The pair created the group Changing Lanes to advocate for reform.

"The HOT lane penalty code was clearly copy and pasted from the HOV lane section of the law," Cooley told TheNewspaper. "If you know you are in violation, you should pay a penalty, but it's different if you don't know."

The high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane ticketing statute was drafted on the understanding that live police officers would be issuing the ticket, on-the-spot, to solo drivers who are not supposed to be in the carpool lane. Under this scenario, there is no possibility of misidentification.

High occupancy toll (HOT) lane tickets, by contrast, are issued by a fully automated camera system. Changing Lanes notes that Transurban's systems are so slow that it can take between five and seven days for a 495 Express Lanes trip to register on a driver's account, meaning an entire week can go by before anyone knows a violation has occurred. This, the group says, promotes additional violations.

"Every other toll road in the country can manage to register a trip on the same day or the next day," Comras explained.

Because Transurban believes it is able to charge $1000 per violation, it has a significant financial incentive to maximize such violations. In Cooley's case, the credit card linked to her valid E-ZPass account was expired for two weeks during which she took eleven trips worth $14. She found out when Transurban sent her a demand for $1100 in "administrative fees." She refused to pay, and last December she was sued for $10,000 over $11.70 worth of tolls.

A Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Dennis J. Smith ruled in April that because the fines are paid through the court system, Transurban could not treat the matter as a civil case, in which the accused has greatly diminished rights. So with the fines becoming a criminal matter, Transurban could not win the fees because the two-year statute of limitations had expired.

Comras tells a remarkably similar story about being hit with eleven unpaid tolls at around the same time. When she fought back in court, Transurban offered to settle if she paid the Australian firm $3000. She refused. Due to a court scheduling error, Comras was tried in abstentia and Transurban was able to obtain a default judgment against her. A Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Richard E. Gardiner threw out the case in April because Transurban had failed to file the paperwork needed to operate as a corporation in Virginia. Transurban has not given up. It petitioned the judge to reconsider.

Changing Lanes is hoping to find a state delegate or senator willing to introduce legislation in the next session to eliminate the excessive fines.

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