Md. man fights $8.75 toll that ballooned into $24K tab

FAIRFAX, Va. — A Montgomery County man is fighting a more than $24,000 bill from Transurban for 23 trips along the 495 Express Lanes due to an E-ZPass glitch.

James Diller incurred the unpaid trips on the 495 Express Lanes in March 2013. The Olney man worked in Tysons and took the toll lanes one exit to Westpark Drive twice a day, for 12 days before he received a notice that there was a problem.

Both Diller and Toni Cooley, a Fairfax County woman fighting a $10,000 bill for a similar problem, took their cases to court Wednesday to challenge the fees assessed by the company that helped pay for and now runs the new express lanes, Transurban. The international consortium will also operate the new express lanes that will run along Interstates 95 and 395 in Virginia.

“I’d be more than happy to pay the $8.75 in tolls that I owe. I’d even be willing to pay a small penalty. But these fees are just outrageous and people need to stand up about it,” says Diller outside of the Fairfax County General District Court.

Once he realized there was an issue, Diller says he contacted New Jersey E-ZPass and learned the automatic renewal was deactivated on his card. He fixed the issue and has since used the 495 Express Lanes without issue.

I’d be more than happy to pay the $8.75 in tolls that I owe….But these fees are just outrageous.

— James Diller

However, Transurban charged $100 in administrative fees for each trip after he refused to pay the initial $12.50 and $25 administrative fees levied for each unpaid trip. Additionally, the company tacked on civil fines.

Under Virginia law, Transurban can collect administrative fees, “reasonably related to the actual cost of collecting the unpaid toll and not to exceed $100 per violation.”

The company can also charge civil penalties of $50 for the first offense, $250 for the second, $500 for the third, and $1.000 for the fourth and any additional offenses.

Because Diller had 23 unpaid trips, he ultimately incurred $2,300 in administrative fees and more than $20,000 in civil penalties.

“It wasn’t like this was over several months that I was dodging tolls. This was over a short period of time commuting to work. As soon as I found out about it, I fixed the E-ZPass part of it. But Transurban is a for-profit company and they were looking for profits and they were looking for money with exorbinant costs and fees,” says Diller.

“They would not budge. They would not work out what I think anyone would call for a reasonable settlement for $8.75 in tolls, so we went to court,” he adds.

Alexis Brock, the custodian of records for a subcontractor to Transurban, offered Diller a settlement of $2,500 before the proceedings. Diller rejected the offer.

Diller appeared in Fairfax County General District Court just before Toni Cooley, who is also fighting similarly large fees, and did not have a lawyer present.

Cooley’s attorney successfully argued that Transurban could not prove the $100 administrative fee per unpaid trip was reasonably related to the actual cost of collecting the unpaid tolls.

Her attorney also argued that because the statute charges civil penalties per offense, not per unpaid toll, then the entire group of violations should be considered a first offense. Cooley and Diller did not know about the E-ZPass problems until after their trips were taken, and so the offense was not known to them.

District Court Judge Michael J. Cassidy struck down the administrative fees against Cooley, but upheld each violation as a separate offense eligible for civil penalties – fines that, in part, cover court costs.

However, Diller argued that he did not receive the notices from Transurban before it escalated. Brock countered that her firm follows the law and sends notices via first-class mail, but does not track the documents by sending them certified mail. No toll operators or ticketing agencies in this region use ceritfied mail to send invoices.

Cassidy ruled against Diller, although he dismissed 19 of the 23 violations. On the remaining four violations, Cassidy fined him $2,200 in administrative fees and civil penalties.

Transurban announced earlier this week a “First-Time Forgiveness” program that caps the fines it’ll seek to $2,200, including both administrative fees and civil fines.

Diller has filed an appeal and is due back in court on Jan. 8.

Both the administrative fees and civil penalties will be key issues in his appeal.

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