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Lease a car? Beware on your next toll road trip

Wednesday - 6/11/2014, 5:03pm  ET

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Drivers use the new 495 Express Lanes, which use electronic tolling. Drivers with an E-ZPass are billed automatically and others are sent a bill in the mail. (WTOP File Photo/Andrew Mollenbeck)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- While most people have a smooth trip on local toll roads, for those who don't, there is a big difference between owning and leasing your vehicle.

When drivers don't have sufficient funds on their E-ZPass, or the device isn't mounted properly, then there's a chance the device won't be read on the 495 Express Lanes or the Intercounty Connector and drivers could be billed for their tolls.

For drivers who lease their vehicle, those toll bills might not ever arrive in their mail box and if they do, there might be extra fees tacked on because of how the cars are registered.

A Fredericksburg woman learned this lesson the hard way after she racked up $700 in tolls and fees, without ever knowing she owed anything.

Christina Selbe regularly drives the 495 Express Lanes from the Springfield Interchange to Westpark Drive in her car, leased through Honda Motors. But she registered 30 unpaid trips on the express lanes between August and December 2013 because she did not properly set up her auto-renewal option on her E-ZPass account.

Transurban contacted the Virginia DMV, which provided an address for Honda, not Selbe. A bill went to Honda, then another bill. The fines accrued because Honda never responded to the bills.

Selbe learned about the problem in February.

"I got a message to call Honda. The machine told me that I owe them $700-something dollars," says Selbe. "I called Transurban and I told them that I never got any invoices from Honda and they said, 'Too bad. We sent them. It's not our fault that Honda didn't give them to you'."

Selbe says she called Transurban at least 20 times to resolve the issue. Honda offered to pay the full amount, then bill her for the amount with an added processing fee. She politely declined.

Registration matters

Compounding the problem was Honda Motor's address. The company moved several years ago from one North Carolina location to another. But the Virginia DMV did not properly record the change of address, and provided Transurban an old address to send the invoices for Selbe's unpaid toll road trips.

"We contacted Honda Leasing, and they indicated that DMV did not have their current address on record. However, the post office forwarded their mail to the correct address," says Virginia DMV spokeswoman Sunni Brown. "Honda Leasing records indicate they received the notices from Transurban. We cannot speak for Honda Leasing on how they may have handled those notices."

Transurban was provided a copy of Selbe's registration, which lists her Fredericksburg address.

"What happened in this case, the record we got from the DMV did not match what we got from her. She showed us a copy of her registration. In light of that, we took care of this driver," says Mike McGurk, spokesman for Transurban, the company that operates the 495 Express Lanes and will operate the 95 Express Lanes opening in early 2015. "What really struck it for us is when she sent us a copy of her registration and showed us what her document said."

VDOT and Transurban agreed to drop all the administrative fees against Selbe, asking her only to pay the original tolls. She agreed.

How toll operators bill leased vehicles

Vehicles that don't have a transponder are mailed a bill based on their license plate number and registration.

For the 495 Express Lanes, drivers will be charged the toll, plus a $12.50 administrative fee, unless a driver notices the mistake within five days. On the ICC, drivers receive a video toll, which is 150 percent of the normal toll.

For leased cars, that billing process involves an extra step.

"In the case of a vehicle purchased, in most cases, the driver listed on the DMV registration will get the invoice. But in cases where a driver leases a vehicle, often the middle man is actually the leasing company. That is the agent that is listed on the DMV record," McGurk says. "What we do is send them an invoice. Then they send us back an affidavit with a copy of the leasing agreement. When we get that, then we send it to the driver."

If the trip is along the ICC, the process is very similar, according to The Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the ICC and toll bridges in Maryland.

"For long-term leases, the registration is recorded according to how the leasing company wants it done. Some will list themselves as the first registered owner and the lessee as the second owner while others will do it the opposite way," says Maryland Transportation Authority spokesman John Sales. "We receive the first registered owner information only from the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration and from most other state Departments of Motor Vehicles. We send our notices to the first registered owner."

Tips for drivers who lease their ride

For drivers of leased vehicles, the best way to avoid Selbe's situation is to make sure the E-ZPass transponder is properly mounted and funded correctly.

Drivers should also talk to their leasing company and the DMV or MVA about how their vehicle is registered.

"Talk with the leasing company about what your agreement says. Make sure it's clear who is responsible for any unpaid tolls. You should also double check with the DMV about who is listed as the primary owner on the car," says McGurk.

Drivers should also contact Transurban, the Maryland Transportation Authority, or the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority for any invoice on the Express Lanes, ICC or Dulles Toll Road.

In general, any penalties or fees that accrued from inaction of the leasing company should not be applied to the driver. Both Transurban and MDTA can put the leasing company into collections, or levy civil violations and fines against them. But until the leasing company supplies the toll operator with a copy of the lease agreement with an affidavit, drivers should not be on the hook for penalties.

If you think you're the victim of a bogus speed camera, red light camera or parking ticket in D.C., Maryland or Virginia, WTOP may be able to help you cut the red tape. Send us your case along with any documentation to ticketbuster@wtop.com

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