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Check your bill: RI truck-tolling system has wrongly charged nearly 2,000 cars

Jim Hummel got an unexpected charge on his E-ZPass bill and started asking questions at the DMV

PROVIDENCE — If you have an E-ZPass account and drive in Rhode Island, look at your monthly billing statement carefully.

Nearly 1,800 customers with passenger vehicles have been charged incorrectly by gantries that are supposed to record only truck traffic.

I was one of them.

We used to rack up pretty big bills driving between Rhode Island and North Carolina visiting our kids while they were in college. And my daughter now lives in New York City, but we hadn’t made that drive for at least a year. In fact, the only travel I could think of that might incur an E-ZPass charge involved a couple of trips to pick up friends or family at Logan Airport.

A closer inspection of the bill showed I was being charged for crossing the “Seekonk River Bridge.” In gantry vernacular that’s really the Washington Bridge.

Why did the RI truck tolling gantry charge my passenger vehicle?

Peter Alviti Jr. the director for The Rhode Island Department of Transportation, told me his agency is aware of the problem and has been working for months with the company that installed the gantries to correct the issue.

How, I asked Alviti, with the sophisticated technology the state is paying for, could this happen?

“What we found is that once in a while we were getting these sporadic vehicles that were getting tagged, like yours,” he told me Thursday afternoon. “If a vehicle is in close proximity to a truck that just got identified, once in a great while instead of picking up the transponder in the truck, if the car is close, it has picked up that car transponder.”

Only 1,787 people have reported erroneous charges out of the nearly 19 million tolling transactions since the system went live in 2018. But Alviti conceded the state has no way of knowing how many people were charged who may not have noticed it on their bills and called to get the charges reversed.

“This was a lesson to me, I got to do a deep dive into a portion of the tolling system that I didn’t know existed,” Alviti said. “The system is different than many tolling systems because it only tolls trucks.”

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More toll gantries, more opportunities for mistakes

Over the past year, I had received several emails from motorists with incorrect charges. I asked about it and the DOT said at the time the incorrect billings were an aberration.  But as the number of gantries increased – there are a total of 13 across the state now – my email increased.

One man wrote: “I was charged for passing over the Greenville Ave Bridge (Route 295). While only a $1.16 charge and an acknowledgment from [the Turnpike and Bridge Authority] I would receive a credit, I wonder how many others have been erroneously charged and do not look at their bill?”

The man asked that I not use his name, but he did attach his bill to the email. He could have easily skipped over the errant charge, as he had three others on his statement for $1.75 each, reflecting travel on the Massachusetts Turnpike.

“Normally I don’t check my bill,” he told me this week when I circled back with him. “I saw the statement and I thought, ‘What’s this?’ Because it’s such a small amount, how many people don’t take the time to call?”

The Turnpike and Bridge Authority does all the billing for the Department of Transportation. Turnpike and Bridge Authority Executive Director Lori Silveira told me that 85% of the vehicles eligible to be tolled have transponders with accounts set up to automatically deduct the amount from a customer’s fund. They are typically replenished by a credit card on file when the balance dips below a certain level.

The remaining 15% have no transponders; their license plates are captured by cameras on the gantries and the authority, which is part of an interstate tolling agency group that shares registration information, identifies the vehicles and bills them. Silveira said in that scenario every bill sent out is vetted, and that the only erroneous charges have come from those with transponders with accounts on file at the authority. 

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Check your E-ZPass statement

Katie Coleman, who oversees the E-ZPass program for the Turnpike and Bridge Authority, said they do hear from people questioning charges: “I would say the calls are few and far between. At that point, we write up a customer unresolved inquiry and a supervisor reviews it. And if it’s determined that it is, or is not a toll-able vehicle, then a credit is issued immediately to the customers.”

She added: “We do encourage people to look at their [E-ZPass] statements. Everybody looks at their bank statements and their credit card but other things kind of fall to the wayside and there are errors that can always happen.”

Alviti said the gantry technology is amazing. 

“The equipment has a radar system that identifies every object going under it by size and shape and compares it to a database and asks if it’s a truck,” he said. “If it’s a truck, it says read the transponder or the license plate and takes a picture.”

Alviti added that Kapsch TrafficCom, the company the state contracts to run the gantries, is adding another layer of software to identify vehicles and weed out the passenger vehicles from the trucks. Most other states are tolling trucks and passenger vehicles. Rhode Island’s tolling of trucks only is the subject of a federal lawsuit making its way through the courts.

 “The system is actually performing better than what the contract calls for it to perform,” Alviti said. “The unfortunate thing is a few people did get nicked. And we’re sorry that they did but I assure them we know about it; it’s a problem that’s being fixed. Shortly we’ll be down to near zero of those instances.”

The Hummel Report is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that relies, in part, on donations. For more information, go to HummelReport.org. Reach Jim at Jim@HummelReport.org.

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