Woman with $10,692 toll lanes charge goes to court

FAIRFAX, Va. — A Fairfax County woman who was charged more than $10,000 for 11 unpaid trips on the 495 Express Lanes went to court on Wednesday and won a partial victory over the company that operates the toll lanes.

Toni Cooley received the notices after her EZPass did not work in November and early December 2012. Cooley had to update the credit card on her EZPass account and did so, but not before she was charged $12.50 per unpaid trip in administrative fees. She didn’t know about the problem until after taking the 11 trips because they were so close together.

Transurban, the private company which operates the 495 and 95 Express Lanes, eventually charged her $25 per trip, then $100 per trip in administrative fees while sending her to collections.

“It’s outrageous. It’s exorbitant. Especially since I paid them for all the toll trips and made it clear on the check that it was for the entire amount of the unpaid tolls. They cashed my check,” says Cooley.

Although Transurban announced on Monday it would eliminate these administrative fees for first-time offenders, Cooley did not qualify for the new program because she was already in the court system.

Under the new program, drivers must pay the original tolls within 60 days and show Transurban that it resolved the problem that lead to the issue. Cooley did that, yet Transurban pursued Cooley for $10,692 in tolls, administrative fees and civil penalties.

“Ten thousand dollars for $11 in tolls that I’ve already paid is just beyond reasonable,” says Cooley.

Transurban offered Cooley a $2,500 settlement before the court proceedings began and waived seven of the 11 violations. She rejected the offer.

Cooley’s attorney argued that the administrative fees were illegal, calling them unreasonable and excessive.

Virginia code 33.2-503 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.”

District Court Judge Michael J. Cassidy agreed and dismissed the administrative fees.

“I’m very pleased the judge ruled against them because they didn’t have any evidence about what it cost them to process and figure out who is the owner of a car. They send out a piece of paper. I can’t believe it costs them $100 per violation,” says Cooley.

However, Cassidy ruled that the civil penalties were legal under Virginia law. The civil penalties totaled about $8,800 of the $10,692 bill sent to Cooley. Since Transurban agreed to drop seven of the violations, the judge ordered Cooley to pay about $2,000 for the remaining four.

Her attorney argued the escalating civil penalties should only apply a second and third transgression on the 495 Express Lanes, pointing to drunk driving laws. Cassidy ruled that criminal standards do not apply to civil cases, even if the excessive penalties are “quasi-criminal” in nature.

Transurban doesn’t believe it’s doing anything wrong.

“The process we’ve been using prior to Monday is the same that other Virginia toll roads use, and toll roads around the country. It’s not that Transurban isn’t within industry standards and Virginia code, it’s that we wanted to try and help EZPass customers avoid issues moving forward,” writes Transurban spokeswoman Pierce Coffee in a statement.

Additionally, Coffee said that the process Transurban used prior to Monday has been consistently upheld in court.

Cooley believes this is a matter of principle.

“I’m very pleased with the outcome. We got the admin fees struck. We’re still working on the civil penalties, which my attorney believes will be struck down on appeal. As long as this case plays out in a court of law, that is what matters. I want to set a precedent for people going forward,” she says.

Cooley is due back in Fairfax County General District Court on Jan. 8.

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