Cashless tolling is causing headaches for some E-ZPass users who have unknowingly racked up hundreds and thousands of dollars in violation fees.
After testimony by Assemblymember Kenny Burgos (D-Bronx) at a legislative hearing on Feb. 6 went viral, complaints about E-ZPass flooded his inbox and social media accounts, he told THE CITY. A TikTok posting of the video has received over 41,000 likes.
“There is not a single issue I think in New York state that unifies New Yorkers more than their disdain for E-ZPass,” Burgos said in the hearing.
Burgos hopes the TPPA, which passed a vote by the state Senate on Jan. 18, will get a boost from the social media attention now that it’s sitting with the Assembly.
Similar legislation was vetoed in 2018 and 2019 by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo and in December by Gov. Kathy Hochul. At the time, Hochul said the bill “would threaten the financial stability of the state’s transportation infrastructure, and would protect toll scofflaws rather than responsible toll payers and the roads and bridges New Yorkers rely on.”
Proponents of the legislation argue that it would protect the people who are being hit with hundreds if not thousands of dollars in surprise fees, as well as collection agency harassment.
John Lindsay, the governor’s deputy communications director for transportation, said in an email to THE CITY, “Governor Hochul will carefully review any legislation if it passes both houses.”
Among those who contacted Burgos’ office with E-ZPass complaints recently was 26-year-old Cheyenne Samu, who lives in Jamaica, Queens. She showed THE CITY how she owes almost $5,800 in fees to the New York State Thruway Authority, stemming from about $735 in tolls that first started stacking up in early 2020.
She had no issue paying the tolls, she said, but as for the fees: “It’s just robbing people, honestly.”
Bronx resident Krystina Valinotti, 30, shared part of her complicated situation on Burgos’ Instagram and explained further in an interview with THE CITY. Valinotti purchased a car in March 2019 because her then-partner needed to drive between Connecticut, Queens and Brooklyn for work.
Valinotti doesn’t have a license, so she never drove the car, and says she was unaware of two years’ worth of tolls that racked up.
In June 2022 she discovered that as the car’s owner, she owed around $700 to the Port Authority, over $1,000 to the Thruway Authority, and a staggering $100,000 — the cost of 117 pages’ worth of violations — to the MTA.
“I didn’t know that there were three different types of tolls or other businesses that you had to pay through,” she said.
That confusion is common. The state-run MTA and Thruway Authority, as well as the Port Authority of NY and NJ all handle E-ZPass tolls in the area — and 16 other states also use the system.
When Valinotti received emails from multiple agencies — but no physical mail seeking payment — she was suspicious: “Thruway was telling me via email that I owed close to $4,000, but I could pay a lump sum of $732 and I wouldn’t have to worry about it. So at first I kind of ignored it because I was like, this sounds like a scam.”
At a loss for how to handle her largest debt of $100,000 to the MTA, Valinotti reached out to the MTA Toll Payer Advocate, a third-party office that helps resolve difficult payment issues. The Thruway Authority and Port Authority also have Toll Payer Advocate offices.
The MTA initially offered Valinotti a settlement of $31,000, but she explained in text messages to THE CITY that she “had to fight to lessen the amount.” The agency later agreed to $15,000, which Valinotti said was granted “after taking into consideration my income and the fact that I wasn’t behind the wheel.”
Under the Toll Payer Protection Act, Valinotti would have more leverage to hold her ex-partner, as the driver, responsible for the charges.
The bill states: “Any owner who is found liable pursuant to this section who was not the operator of the vehicle at the time the obligation to pay the toll was incurred may maintain an action for indemnification against the operator.”
But for now, Valinotti is paying $100 per month to the MTA until the $15,000 is paid off — all for a car she has never driven.
A common thread in the complaints heard by Assemblymember Burgos is the amount of the billing fees compared to the amount of the original tolls.
“After the first 30 days of the bill not being paid, you’ve already incurred a $100 fee on top of what sometimes can be just a $1 toll,” he said.
Burgos has heard from drivers whose late fees added up to 10 times the cost of the original tolls. He also heard from some who say they never received the original bill, and then were charged late fees.
“What people are experiencing is that the first notice they get is already with a fee tacked on there. You can imagine, you wouldn’t want to pay $101 for something that should’ve been $1. It’s an insane markup.”
Burgos asked: “Who is collecting this fee? E-ZPass is making money hand over fist.”
According to 2021 Thruway Authority data, the state collected $32.1 million in tolls by mail violation fees and $1.9 million in E-ZPass violation fees — on top of $404 million in passenger tolls and $356 million in commercial tolls.
A spokesperson for The Thruway Authority declined to comment on the record. In a statement, MTA spokesperson Aaron Donovan simply said: “The MTA has an obligation to collect tolls. Drivers have an obligation to pay them. We strongly urge people using bridges and tunnels to get E-ZPass and the award-winning Tolls NY app to avoid unfortunate situations.”
If passed, the TPPA would drastically reduce late fees, capping them either at $25 or twice the toll amount if that is greater, after 60 days of nonpayment.
The legislation also states that if a public authority fails to send a bill within 30 days, the vehicle owner is not liable for any costs. It also sets guidelines for communication between customers and tolling agencies.
The nonprofit government watchdog Reinvent Albany opposes the TPPA, said Rachael Fauss, the organization’s senior policy advisor specializing in MTA issues.
She pointed out that the MTA is facing a “massive budget deficit” and that “the whole point of tolls is that they help fund the service that the user is taking advantage of.”
The group is concerned there could be “unintended consequences” for revenue if the system focuses on individual cases instead of the larger picture.
A statement on the Reinvent Albany website says “it is troubling that this bill does not include a fiscal impact statement that estimates reductions in tolls and penalty revenues.”
Burgos, now trying to pass the TPPA through the Assembly, acknowledged that the language in the bill is about five years old and may need updating. But, he said, “I don’t think the MTA should be reliant on $100 fines.
“People are just being hit with crazy bills — so we have to do something.”