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495 Express Lanes trip cost woman $10,000

Wednesday - 5/28/2014, 3:53pm  ET

FAIRFAX, Va. -- A Northern Virginia woman who took 11 trips on the 495 Express Lanes is being charged more than $10,000 in tolls, administrative fees, court costs and civil penalties.

Toni Cooley took the trips over a two-week span in November and December 2012. Her E-ZPass on the 495 Express Lanes did not register because she did not properly set up auto-renewal on her account. Before she knew it, Transurban sent Cooley a bill for several hundred dollars. Transurban operates the 495 Express Lanes.

Cooley wrote a check to Transurban for about $11, or the total cost of the tolls.

"I wrote a note saying 'I'm only going to pay for the tolls.' They noted that in emails. Everyone agrees that I paid the amount of tolls that were due," says Cooley.

Eventually, her debt went into collections. After about six months, it was turned over to Fairfax County District Court.

The total bill skyrocketed to $10,692, including $8,800 in civil penalties, $1,100 in administrative fees and almost $792 in court costs.

"I had to pull out a calculator because I was going crazy. I was having a heart attack, like 'Oh my God.' Every attorney I speak to tells me that this is unbelievable," says Cooley. "I'm not paying those civil penalties for something I didn't do."

Cooley believes the administrative fees that Transurban charges drivers are excessive and unnecessary. Transurban charges drivers $12.50 in fees per trip, then $25 per trip after 30 days. If a toll goes unpaid for more than 65 days, it goes to law enforcement services, a collections agency, with a $100 per trip fee.

Transurban says the fees are necessary to recoup the costs for contacting the DMV to track down the driver, customer service, and the technology used to capture the tolls and toll violators.

Virginia code 33.1-56.3 allows Transurban to collect administrative fees, "so as to recover the expenses of collecting the unpaid toll, which administrative fee shall be reasonably related to the actual cost of collecting the unpaid toll and not exceed $100 per violation."

Cooley argues that the same law does not allow Transurban to take her to court over administrative fees.

"The driver of a vehicle who enters the HOT lanes in an unauthorized vehicle, in violation of the conditions for use of such HOT lanes established pursuant to 33.1-56.2, without payment of the required toll, or without having made arrangements with the HOT lanes operator for payment of the required toll, shall have committed a violation of this section," reads the law.

"The law is clear that they can only take me to court for unpaid tolls. They cannot take me to court for administrative fees or anything like that. I have already paid the tolls, which I made very clear to them," says Cooley.

Ultimately it's up to a judge to interpret the various clauses in 33.1-56.3 to determine whether she can be held legally liable for fees.

Cooley believes collections can pursue her. She says she's prepared to deal with such an agency over the unpaid debt and negotiate a settlement. She is also prepared to have her credit score affected.

"At this point, I wouldn't be upset. It's the ethics of it. It's the morality of it. It's just wrong," says Cooley.

Transurban spokesman Mike McGurk wouldn't comment specifically on the legal matters. However, he did hope others will learn a lesson from the Cooley case.

"Drivers can avoid receiving an invoice by ensuring they have an E-ZPass, mounting the E-ZPass per the instructions that come with it and keeping their E-ZPass account funded," says McGurk. "Like other toll facilities, we assess fees on a per trip basis."

The Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the Intercounty Connector, does charge a per-trip fee too. If a driver does not take a proper trip on the ICC, then the MDTA sends a video toll at 150 percent of the regular toll. If the driver does not pay it within 30 days, then a $50 civil violation per-trip is mailed to the driver. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority uses a similar model on the Dulles Toll Road.

But Cooley believes the fees on these other toll roads are much more reasonable.

"These fees are just unacceptable. People need to talk to our legislators and tell them that these admin fees are outrageous and need to stop," she says.

Cooley will go on trial at Fairfax County District Court on Oct. 29.

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