Bay Area drivers will soon have to pay back $184 million in bridge toll debt


The MTC’s Bay Area Toll Authority voted June 8 to begin releasing hundreds of thousands of toll violators to the DMV, which can then ban people from renewing their car registrations until their fares are paid.

According to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, 396,000 drivers owe between $22 and $88, 101,000 owe between $110 and $418, and 13,000 are receiving calls from collection agencies because they owe more than $1,600. Many of these fines also come with late payment penalties.

At the onset of the pandemic, the agency paused its policy of escalating unpaid violations to the California Department of Motor Vehicles. The MTC has also abolished toll collectors, forcing drivers to pay tolls with either a FasTrak transponder or an invoice sent to the address their car is registered to. The latest move signals a return to pre-pandemic aftermath of not paying to travel across one of the Bay Area’s seven state bridges.

Advocates are concerned about the impact these plans will have on low-income communities that rely on their cars for their everyday lives.

“Low-income people are disproportionately affected by DMV Holdings. They shouldn’t be used at all,” Candy Smallwood, an attorney with the East Bay Community Law Center, said at the June 8 BATA meeting. “The DMV forces people to choose between breaking the law and going to work or to and from doctor’s appointments. DMV criminalizes poverty.”

The agency is setting up an needs-based payment plan for those earning up to 200% of the federal poverty line — about $27,000 per person, or $55,000 for a family of four — to stagger their payments. Critics of the plan pointed out that these qualifications leave out large numbers of people who, despite not meeting the criteria, are still struggling financially.

“I don’t even know how a family of four in the Bay Area can survive on $55,000,” Supervisor Hillary Ronen said at the June 8 meeting.
MTC sees the crackdown as a necessary way to recover the $50 million in tolls and $134 million in late fees owed by the public before the backlog of unpaid violations in 2024 expires.

“We have a duty to carefully steward an important public good,” MTC spokesman John Goodwin told SFGATE. “We are committed to funding voter-approved projects funded with toll dollars.”

Goodwin anticipates that the first non-commercial violation reports will be submitted to the DMV by January 2023. Until then, MTC will implement what CEO Therese McMillan called “a very aggressive public information campaign” to educate people about low-income people on a payment plan they are unlikely to qualify for.


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