New cashless tolls not so E-Z for some

Local News

Commuters seem to be enjoying the new cashless tolls on Grand Island–hailed as being faster, safer, and more convenient when they were installed in March–but there are some potential speed bumps in the new cashless system.

In the New York City area, they have had cashless tolls for years, and some drivers have had horror stories to tell about accusations of evading tolls and other offenses, erroneously.

Thousands of drivers have paid millions of dollars in fines, or have even had their car registration suspended for not paying, but in many cases they actually did nothing wrong.

But the new technology, and replacing humans at toll terminals with cameras and sensors, presents a new set of challenges, as Jessica Bauer can readily attest.

Just before the Grand Island tolls changed to cashless, Bauer was cited for speeding through a toll barrier, and her E-ZPass was suspended.

Jessica said she figured she would lose her E-ZPass discount driving from her Town of Niagara home to Buffalo State, and have to pay the full toll, while she appealed the suspension.

“I was just expecting to pay the $1 toll until either the appeal went through, or the suspension was lifted on June 11.”

But there are no signs, nor toll attendants to tell Bauer the Thruway Authority was tacking a $5 penalty on to every toll, and 30 trips through the tolls added up to $150 on her credit card.

Jessica felt she was being penalized for using her E-ZPass, “They essentially told me I was banned from the Thruway because there is no other way to go over Grand Island without going through an E-ZPass lane now.”

Eventually, the Thruway Authority refunded Bauer’s $150 back, but now she is avoiding Grand Island altogether, “Now I am adding an extra 20 minutes to my commute to go around Grand Island to get into Buffalo.”

In the New York City, the first cashless tolls went up at the Henry Hudson Bridge nearly six years ago, and other toll authorities have been following suit, generating horror stories that have been a lot worse.

That prompted Matthew Driscoll, the Acting Executive director of the Thruway Authority to assure Western New York drivers the Thruway’s toll processing consultant is making improvements.

“We continue to expect and demand an improvement in services, and I am confident that we are going to get that.”

But state lawmakers are going a step further, crafting a “Toll Payers Protection Act” to provide drivers with a mechanism for fighting back. Tonawanda State Assemblyman Robin Schimminger is a co-sponsor

“It does establish greater rights for those toll payers, and a due process mechanism by which they can seek relief from wrongfully being fined, or wrongfully being billed.”

Another cashless toll nightmare, driving a rental car, which can get really tricky. Some rental companies have their own E-ZPass accounts, which the renter pays for, while other rental companies basically leave drivers on your own. 

If you are planning on renting a car and using a toll that is serviced by E-ZPass, consumer advocates suggest using your own E-ZPass tag, otherwise you could be in for a big surprise.

In the past, you could simply pay as you go, when driving a rental car on a toll road, but if it is cashless, the bill goes to the rental agency, and if they have your credit card number, the bill gets passed along to the renter, and then some, according to Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns.

“They are charging you an additional amount, above and beyond what you are paying for the tolls.”

Kearns said those additional charges can get quite high as daily charges, or a processing fee for each unpaid toll, so he recommends taking your E-ZPass with you.

“If you are having relatives–as we go into the warmer season–and you are bringing people to Niagara Falls and you are going through a cashless toll, I would just encourage you to bring your E-ZPass and to have your E-ZPass in that rental vehicle.”

The Toll Payers Protection Act was approved in the State Senate, while a companion measure has passed out of committee in the Assembly.

Lawmakers are taking this action because of the many cases where drivers are erroneously accused of committing infractions, or evading tolls, and those drivers are often considered guilty until they can prove their innocence. 

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