Women launch website targeting Express Lane fines

FALLS CHURCH, Va. — Two Northern Virginia women profiled on WTOP have come together to launch a new website to protest the fines and penalties on the Express Lanes. In some cases, the fines can be thousands of dollars.

Toni Cooley and Lisa Marie Comras launched Drivers4Change.org because they want a conversation to begin on how to restore fairness to the process. 

“Basically what they did is they took the HOV law and copied it over to the HOT (high occupancy toll) Lanes statute. But when you commit an HOV violation, a trooper pulls you over and writes you a ticket. You know you’ve committed a violation and if you do it again, the fines go up. You don’t know that on the HOT Lanes,” says Cooley.

She points out that since there are neither red light indicators, nor toll booths, there is no notice given on the roadway about a violation compared to the HOV system. She suggests lawmakers shouldn’t have copied and pasted the language over, but rather written new language for the realities of a new roadway.

Del. David Albo, who wrote the original law, tells WTOP that he never envisioned a toll road without toll booths when the HOT Lane laws were written. He thought there would be toll booths or red light indicators like the Dulles Toll Road.

However, others have suggested that this is not accurate because Transurban made it clear from the start that there would not be toll booths.

“The way the law was written and the way it is being applied are diametrically opposed,” says Comras.

“This is the most important thing that I’m going to do in my life. I’m lucky because I have a support system at home. I had a lawyer. But Toni and I are doing this for people who aren’t so lucky and don’t understand the court process,” she adds.

Transurban now caps the judgement it seeks in court for first-time offenders to $2,200 plus court costs, and offers to waive fees if the person resolves the problem and works with Transurban from the outset.

But Cooley and Comras believe $2,200 plus court costs is still too much. They think there are some common sense solutions. They hope lawmakers will rewrite the applicable law  in the 2016 session.

“We need a more precise definition of violation and offense. Is each violation an offense? Until you know about a problem with your E-ZPass, all the violations should equal one offense with one administrative fee and one civil penalty,” says Cooley.

For example, Cooley accrued 11 unpaid tolls trips totaling $11.10. Her first bill was for $12.50 in administrative fees for each trip, plus the original toll, or about $150. She says had the first bill been a single administrative fee of $12.50, plus the original toll, or $33.60, she would’ve paid on the spot.

Cooley also thinks the court should only apply one $50 civil penalty for a first set of violations, rather than 11 separate offenses totaling $8,800.

“You can tell who is a scofflaw and who had an innocent mistake with their E-ZPass. If you can show Transurban that you own an E-ZPass and that you’ve successfully paid before and after the problem, then they should know you’re not a cheater,” says Cooley, pointing out that scofflaws probably don’t own an E-ZPass.

Comras and Cooley will be meeting with lawmakers this year to offer advice on how to rework the law to improve the process, while also working with Transurban.

“We’re not opposed to the Express Lanes. In fact, I still use the Express Lanes for my commute. Our advocacy group is not about bashing Transurban. We believe in a positive message looking for positive changes. We hope Transurban would be willing to work with us and lawmakers on this issue,” says Cooley.

Transurban spokesman Mike McGurk responded in a statement.

“We do not want any Express Lanes traveler to end up paying fees because of an unpaid toll. For those who make a mistake, every traveler has an opportunity to pay a missed toll online with a $1.50 fee per unpaid trip within the first five days. After that, every traveler receives a notice with a $12.50 administrative fee per unpaid trip. As part of our First-Time Forgiveness program, we will waive invoice fees if the traveler contacts us. Customer satisfaction is of the utmost importance to us and we encourage any traveler to contact us right away if they receive an invoice or have a question,” he writes.

Cooley won her case in Circuit Court in early April. Comras won a key decision a few weeks later to vacate a judgement against her for nearly $11,000. She is due back in court on May 18 when the case against her will likely get dismissed based on the Cooley ruling.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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