25 Investigates: Drivers call new tolling fees ‘extortion'

BOSTON — The state of Massachusetts is raking in millions off its new pay-by-plate tolling system by nickel-and-diming drivers with late fees.

Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen has been exposing problems with the state’s new taxpayer funded electronic tolling system all year.

Now, drivers are complaining about the latest failure – the state charging late fees even when there’s proof the bill for the toll was paid on time.

Late fee collections on the Turnpike tolls has become big business for MassDOT. The state agency has already billed drivers for more than $11 million in late fees and “non-payment” fees and all that money goes straight into MassDOT’s coffers for operating expenses, construction projects and paying off Turnpike debt.

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John Vivilecchia received a pay-by-plate bill in the mail in May. He said paid $29,95 in tolls for his daily commute over the Tobin Bridge and forgot about it – until he received another notice in the mail a month later.

This time the bill was for “non-payment fees” and customer service told him the check from his bank was two days late.

“They told me the burden of proof was on me. So, I had to start getting cancelled checks, getting bank records, things like that,” said Vivilecchia.

The bank records he shared with 25 Investigates clearly show his payment was delivered five days before the due date.

But MassDOT told 25 Investigates those bank records aren’t enough to clear the late fee charges and the agency is threatening Vivilecchia’s license and registration unless he pays $12.80 in fees.

“That’s extortion – hands down extortion,” said Vivilecchia. “I figured, if it's happening to me, it's happening to thousands of other people.”

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The tolling late fees are a new revenue stream for the state, which has faced recent budget cuts, and records obtained by 25 Investigates show MassDOT has collected more than $7 million in late fees and another $4 million in “non-payment fees” – like the ones Vivilecchia received – just since the new system launched last fall.

Earlier this year, 25 Investigates uncovered E-Z Pass customer service nightmares, including long wait times and even major glitches in the new taxpayer-funded system that generated bogus charges for drivers.

Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen caught up with MassDOT Secretary Stephanie Pollack last month to ask why taxpayers paid so much for a new electronic tolling system plagued by so many problems.

“So, the system is actually performing pretty well, but when you're doing tens of millions of transactions, even a tiny, tiny fraction of well under one percent is a lot of individuals,” said Pollack.

In fact, 25 Investigates found one percent of drivers erroneously billed through the new electronic tolling system adds up to millions of drivers affected.

>>RELATED: 25 Investigates: More problems for drivers with state's new electronic tolling

Truck driver Bob Farrell is one of those affected drivers.

The state double billed Farrell when it sent him pay-by-plate bills in the mail even though the system also pinged his transponder and charged his E-Z Pass account for the same trip on the Mass Pike.

“Fourteen phone calls, one trip to the Natick service center, and an appeal form and not once has anybody said, ‘oh, I'll take care of that for you,’” said Farrell.

The state only reversed his charges after 25 Investigates got involved.

When asked why so many drivers have to contact 25 Investigates to get help with E-Z Pass problems, Pollack said, “I'm not really sure of that because we have a great, uh, we have a great center that people can call and my understanding is they have a very high resolution rate, but obviously if we're not doing as well as we should be, we need to provide better customer service and I'll take a harder look at that.”

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