Bay Area bridge toll penalties disproportionately harm lower income people

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission can build a national model for equitable tolling

Millions of people go over the Bay Area’s bridges every year, paying tolls that fund important transit investments. Yet for hundreds of thousands of those people, a trip over a bridge can be the first step in becoming ensnared in an overly punitive system, one that can end in hundreds or thousands of dollars in debt and barriers to legally registering your car. New research from SPUR highlights how an antiquated system has come to cause significant harm to some of the region’s most vulnerable communities, and how the Metropolitan Transportation Commission is in a unique position to build a national model for a just and equitable tolling system.

When a driver crosses one of our region’s seven state-owned toll bridges, they’re charged a $6 toll, either through accounts such as FasTrak or via a bill sent in the mail. If a driver misses the bill or doesn’t have the balance to cover the toll, they’re sent an unpaid toll violation. In 2019, 5 million such violations were sent to hundreds of thousands of people across the Bay Area. The violations come with additional costs, fines and fees that can quickly add up to hundreds or thousands of dollars in debt. Many people don’t even know they owe money for unpaid tolls until they go to renew their car registration, where they’re told they have to pay the full amount owed in one lump sum payment or they won’t be able to register their car.

At a time when 35% of the nation’s population are unable to pay an unexpected expense of $400, many Bay Area residents are unable to pay these lump sum amounts. This puts them in the position of having to choose between driving their car illegally on an expired registration or not driving to work and other necessary activities. The switch to all-electronic tolling, made for safety reasons during the COVID-19 pandemic, has increased the number of unpaid tolls and exacerbated the problem, especially for essential workers who can’t telecommute.

Our research found that unpaid toll violations are disproportionately falling on Black and Latinx neighborhoods across the Bay Area. Hunters Point, a historically Black neighborhood that has higher rates of poverty than the rest of San Francisco, had one of the highest per capita rates of unpaid toll violations in the region and the highest in the city. Majority Black and Latinx neighborhoods in East Oakland were also disproportionately subjected to unpaid toll violations. Among the zip codes with the highest per capita rates of unpaid toll violations, four out of five had majority BIPOC populations and higher rates of poverty than the rest of the region.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission has committed publicly to building an equitable tolling system, for which they should be commended. In October, MTC voted to dramatically reduce the fines and fees for unpaid tolls from a total of $70 per missed toll payment to $20. This is a meaningful shift toward a more equitable and less punitive system. Building on the most recent vote and the commission’s commitment to centering equity in its work, MTC can begin a series of changes to make the unpaid toll system more collaborative, less punitive and aimed at repairing past wrongs while building new systems. In order to do this, we recommend that MTC follow the following best practices established by government agencies around the country:

  • Establish payment plans for all unpaid toll-related debts, so that people who can’t afford to pay their debts in one lump sum have a way to pay back their debts over time. Payment plans are standard practice at hundreds of government agencies around the country, including California’s traffic courts and our utility companies.
  • Eliminate all fees for unpaid tolls, as added fees have little effect on repayment and increase debts unnecessarily. California is a national leader in ending the use of fees to cover administrative costs, dropping billions of dollars in fees in the past two years.
  • End fines for low-income people, who are the least likely to be able to afford them. SFMTA recently adopted a similar program, waiving all parking and transit citations for unhoused people.
  • Modernize and improve the notification system, so that people are better alerted when they owe tolls. New Jersey recently passed a law requiring toll operators to provide people the option to opt in to email, text, or app communication, giving multiple avenues for communication.
  • End the use of DMV holds for people who cannot afford to pay, to stop forcing people to choose between making essential trips and breaking the law.
  • Forgive all past fines and fees owed, to start on a clean slate for people who were trapped in the prior system. Amnesty programs such as this are used across the country to forgive traffic debts and help people start fresh.

MTC has the opportunity to build a national model for tolling. Reducing fines and fees was an important first step, but there are many more to take to build a truly equitable system.

Jacob Denney is the economic justice policy director at SPUR, a Bay Area public policy think tank. Follow him on twitter: @JacobJDenney. Jerold Brito, Adrian Leong, Scott Miller and Margaret Parker are graduate students at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley.

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