- Associated Press - Saturday, March 18, 2017

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) - Takeisha Reynolds owes more than $15,000 for commuting to a job that paid $11,000 last year.

She bought an E-ZPass transponder three years ago, when Elizabeth River Crossings began tolling the underwater tubes that link her home in Portsmouth to work in Norfolk. But she wasn’t making enough money to fund the account. A few months later, she faced a choice: tame the flurry of tolls, or pay for groceries, gas and rent.

The ERC invoices piled up fast. What started as a stack of small bills - $10, $20, $30 - became an impossible debt.

“It was already hard for me without tolls to pay for regular bills. Then you put this on me and tell me I have to pay this or I can’t go to work,” Reynolds said as she sifted through a drawer stuffed with statements. “I’m just stuck.”

When Virginia launched an infrastructure upgrade and tolls at the Midtown and Downtown tunnels, critics warned that Hampton Roads’ poorest drivers would shoulder the heaviest burden. People who rely on the tubes have some of the lowest incomes in the state, which means they have less to spend on travel. Portsmouth workers like Reynolds cross the Elizabeth River more than anyone else because the city’s job base is much smaller than those in Norfolk and Virginia Beach.

Reynolds is one of three cash-strapped women who told their stories to The Pilot. They were wrong to ignore the mounting tolls, but the punishments for those bad decisions are five-figure debts they’ll never be able to afford.

One had to leave her job, two lost their cars, and none of them can expect relief.

Virginia partnered with ERC to build a second Midtown Tunnel tube, renovate the existing tunnels and extend the MLK Freeway to Interstate 264. In exchange for operating and maintaining the roads, ERC gets an average annual profit of 13.5 percent over 58 years.

Since ERC began collecting tolls in February 2014, motorists across Hampton Roads have been frustrated by an arcane billing system that multiplies the cost of trips for those without E-ZPass. Because low-income travelers have the hardest time paying early and replenishing E-ZPass accounts, they often get the highest bills.

The pay-by-plate system works by taking photos of license plates and sending invoices to people without active E-ZPass accounts. There’s a $3.30 processing fee, and then a $5 late fee if the toll isn’t paid by the first listed due date. If a second deadline isn’t met, then ERC tacks on $10 per trip. After that, the debt is sent to a collection agency, and ERC adds a final $7.50 fee.

“It’s predatory,” said Virginia Del. Steve Heretick, whose district includes parts of Portsmouth and Norfolk. “These are wildly, mind-bogglingly large bills.”

ERC keeps its revenue breakdown secret. A spokeswoman refused to tell The Pilot how much the operator receives each year in late fees. And state officials overseeing the partnership say their hands are tied because ERC’s contract includes a provision that lets it withhold information considered proprietary.

But public finance experts and lawmakers say the Virginia Department of Transportation has to make sure ERC isn’t burdening travelers with unreasonable fees. And a new legislative directive backed by Heretick has been folded into the state’s budget to give VDOT some muscle. It calls for the agency to come up with a plan by November to track toll road use, violations, civil penalties and administrative fees charged and collected by private operators each year.

That oversight is essential in public-private partnerships, said Thomas Skuzinski, who teaches urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech. If government entities don’t keep a close eye on billing practices, companies can take advantage of motorists with no repercussions.

Billing flubs have dogged ERC since the 2014 rollout. Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne scolded the firm last year for incorrectly charging at least 5,000 users, saying a “pattern of process failures continues to erode the public’s confidence in ERC’s ability.” The company fixed hardware and software problems and promised to do better.

Layne called out ERC again after The Pilot posted this story online. He told the Commonwealth Transportation Board that he’s disappointed by ERC’s business practices and said he plans to pressure it to scale back fees.

“I’m not trying to make any excuse for anyone that doesn’t pay their bills,” Layne told the board. “But come on - $14,000 for tolls?”

Layne said he’s asking lawyers to scour the state’s contract with the company, but “other than the bully pulpit, there’s not a whole lot we can do.”

Tolls are a nuisance for most of Hampton Roads, just a few bucks here and there for trips across the Elizabeth. But they’ve been life-changing for some of its poorest residents.

ERC has a cap on penalties for individual trips, but there’s no limit on how much it can charge each driver.

Norfolk resident Tamaia Camp owes $18,396 for 981 crossings. She said she was earning about $1,000 per month as a cafeteria worker at Douglass Park Elementary before she quit in April because a fifth-grader punched her in the back while she was pregnant. She said she was already recovering from a back injury at Wal-Mart, her previous employer.

“Either I keep working and I risk losing my child, or I get out of work,” Camp said, recalling her decision to leave. “I just feel defeated. Like giving up.”

Camp doesn’t understand her bill, so she called last month with questions. Just how much does ERC want for fees and penalties?

A service rep said it was tricky to tell because she had racked up so many trips at different times, so she couldn’t give an exact figure.

“So let’s just say, worst-case scenario: You have 981 trips, and if they were all peak, it’ll be about $4,000.”

She paused.

“In late fees, et cetera? Estimated $14,475.”

The rep gave Camp a chance to cut her bill in half if she pays $3,680 upfront, then makes monthly payments of $614 to settle at $9,500.

“There’s no way I can pay any of that,” Camp replied. “I’m disabled. I have three kids.”

To crack down on scofflaws, ERC puts registration holds on vehicles whose owners don’t pay on time.

CEO Greg Woodsmall and CFO Anthony Evans wrote in a Jan. 27 financial report that the company wasn’t collecting enough money from drivers, so “DMV registration holds and court actions are now fully ramped up. A newly recruited internal collections team are improving results.”

That’s what happened to Camp, so now her family moves around Norfolk on foot.

Their mornings start with a 15-minute trip to Southside STEM Academy at Campostella. Her oldest, Mikel, has to be there by 8:15 a.m. Then it’s off to Grandy Village Learning Center about 30 minutes away, where Meki, 3, starts preschool around 9:30 a.m.

Camp goes home with 3-month-old Devon in tow and repeats the journey about three hours later. But this time, she has to walk about 45 minutes to whisk Meki from his school at 2 p.m. and make it back to Mikel exactly 45 minutes later. Sometimes she’s late because Meki gets tired of walking.

“I have to hurry,” Camp said as Devon wriggled and screamed in her lap. “I can’t have them missing school.”

ERC says its penalties follow the law. And most customers - 77 percent - have E-ZPass accounts, paying the lowest amount possible, without fees. Drivers can even ask ERC to settle for as little as half - all three women who spoke with The Pilot have been given that chance.

Plus, spokeswoman Leila Rice said, the company is spending $500,000 per year for a decade to give low-income residents 75-cent trip discounts.

“The majority of our customers are using E-ZPass or paying their invoices,” Rice wrote in an email. “They don’t pay these fees at all.”

But even the average commuter who makes timely ERC payments spends about $1,000 per year on tolls. That’s more than 2 percent of the median household income in Portsmouth, the city most affected by tolls.

“When you’re working a low-end job, you have to borrow to pay rent,” said Tawanna Harris, who owes $13,000 after losing a car and a job to the tolls. “It’s hard to have extra change when those bills come.”

Reynolds, the Portsmouth woman who owes $15,000 for 872 trips, came up with a plan to at least avoid losing her car. She opted to renew her tags for three years instead of one, like she normally does.

“I don’t even check my mailbox anymore because I know the majority of my bills are going to be tolls,” Reynolds said. “That’s a waste of paper.”

She just got a new job in Norfolk that will pay about 37 percent more per hour compared with what she was earning before. She’s planning to use the extra money to catch up on past-due debts, like car payments.

But the tolls? They’ll just pile higher.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe is quick to knock his predecessor’s tunnel deal.

Last year, the state agreed to pay $78 million to keep tolls off the MLK Freeway Extension. VDOT also brokered the 75-cent relief program that kicks in this year for regular commuters who make less than $30,000 a year. And ERC has agreed to a $2,200 cap for first-time court convictions.

“The state has done everything that we possibly could do within the constraints of the contract that we have,” said Grindley Johnson, deputy secretary of transportation. “I understand that people are having a hard time paying, but . you’ve got to have some personal responsibility.”

Toll opponents want the state to do more. For one, they say, the $30,000 salary threshold for relief is too low. And those who would benefit from the program have a harder time than most feeding their E-ZPass accounts.

“We all appreciate that they kept tolls off the MLK extension,” said Portsmouth Councilwoman Lisa Lucas-Burke. “But to tack on fees for people who can’t afford them? They were negligent going through the tunnels, but those fees are ridiculous. Their problems are compounded with other issues.”

Drivers without active E-ZPass accounts are billed at least $3 in processing fees per trip. Those with E-ZPass accounts must fund them with $35 credit card payments or through a prepaid card that can be loaded with cash or checks, at a $1.50 charge per deposit.

Tolls surged to their highest levels yet this year. Passenger vehicles with an E-ZPass last year were charged $1.50 during peak hours and $1.25 any other time. Those rates spiked by 32 percent on Jan. 1, their highest jump since tolling was introduced in 2014. The cheapest toll, for passenger vehicles with an E-ZPass, increased to $1.65 during off-peak hours and to $1.95 during peak periods.

And they’ll only keep climbing.

An $82.5 million deal to reduce tolls made shortly after McAuliffe took office kept those E-ZPass fee levels lower than they otherwise would have been until 2016. But that arrangement is over, and now annual increases of at least 3.5 percent are possible.

Harris, who lives in Norfolk, says she quit working at a clinic in Portsmouth because she couldn’t afford commuting there anymore. Unable to renew her expired tags, she was pulled over and fined, so she returned her car and now rides the bus to a new job in Virginia Beach.

“This is the first time I’ve been without out a car since I was 16 years old,” said Harris, 38. “I could never understand why they put these tolls in the poorest city in Hampton Roads.”

Camp has a van, but she’s afraid of driving it with expired tags. When she has to run errands or visit a doctor, she asks for a ride or rustles the kids onto a bus.

“I had to walk them like this when I was pregnant,” she said over the rumble of traffic on a recent afternoon. “It almost sent me into early labor.”

Camp thought about driving anyway to look for a desk job but decided against it.

She’s already sunk deep enough in debt for breaking the rules.

___

Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com

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