Cross the bridge, pay a toll ... get a ticket?

TACOMA - Dorothy McCotter-Fryar of Silverdale and Herb Bickle of Tacoma each got a $49 ticket for allegedly crossing the new Narrows bridge without paying the toll - even though both have automatic toll collection devices in their vehicles.

Inna Vasilyev of University Place said she stopped and paid at a tollbooth, but still got a ticket.

None of the three is happy with the Good To Go program or the people running it.

"It's just so frustrating," said McCotter-Fryar, who is taking care of her 91-year-old husband. "I don't need this stress. I'm 80. I'm too old for this baloney."

Bickle, who drives tractor-trailer rigs across the bridge on a regular basis, said he has a transponder in his rig, but got a ticket for the trailer. Sensors in the roadway are supposed to count tractor-trailer axles and automatically debit individual toll accounts for the correct amount.

"I really don't want to waste a day off to go fight a ticket I shouldn't have gotten in the first place," he said.

More than 12,000 tickets have been issued for failing to pay the $3 cash or $1.75 electronic toll on the bridge since the Washington State Patrol began enforcing toll violations July 22, a week after the bridge opened.

Most of those citations probably are legitimate, said Chuck Ramey, administrator for Pierce County District Court, which is processing the tickets.

But some aren't. And no one knows yet how many drivers have gotten tickets they don't deserve.

Officials for TransCore, the private company that was paid $9.7 million to install the tolling system and an additional $7.1 million to collect tolls the first year, acknowledged that there have been glitches during the first month and that some drivers have been wrongly ticketed.

Interim state Transportation secretary Paula Hammond said she wants her staff and TransCore to find out what's wrong with the tolling system because drivers shouldn't be ticketed if they've paid a toll.

"It's a brand new system," Hammond said. "We're shaking the bugs out. We knew it wasn't going to be flawless. We think it's working well, but it really needs to be spot on.

"We've got to get to the bottom of this," she said. "We've just got to hold these people's feet to the fire."

Equipment problems

Barbara Catlin, TransCore spokeswoman in Dallas, said some of the tickets can be explained by a two-hour equipment failure

July 29. As many as 149 tickets were sent to drivers who went through the cash toll plaza. TransCore will contact those people and ask the court to dismiss their tickets.

Janet Matkin, DOT toll communications director, said some of those drivers were waved through the tollbooth on that date whether they paid or not.

"Those drivers clearly did not intend to violate the rules and it's absolutely unacceptable that they received citations," Matkin said.

TransCore's toll system problems appear to extend beyond that July 29 occurrence to different dates and circumstances.

Bickle crossed the bridge on July 24, McCotter-Fryar on Aug. 4 and Vasilyev on Aug. 5. Catlin said TransCore will look into those cases.

Matkin said some of the citations might have been issued because cash-paying customers are driving away from the tollbooth too soon after paying. She said drivers should wait for the signal light to turn green before leaving the toll plaza.

She said she isn't aware of any other system malfunctions.

"There may be individual issues, but not large groups," she said.

Meanwhile, the courts are flooded with bridge toll tickets.

Chuck Ramey, administrator for Pierce County District Court, said the seven staff members assigned to traffic infractions at the South Tacoma office spend nearly all their time processing the 12,418 bridge toll tickets that have been issued between July 22 and Aug. 20.

"We're drowning," he said.

When the State Patrol mails tickets to toll violators, copies of those citations simultaneously are transmitted to the court electronically. Court workers are fielding calls from drivers, collecting fines, scheduling appeal hearings and answering a lot of questions from walk-in traffic.

"We're trying to tackle incoming questions from the public as we get them," Ramey said.

People who get tickets can request a hearing, but they don't necessarily have to show up in person. They can request a "mail hearing" in which they would make their case in a letter to the court, said Ramey.

The first hearings on contested bridge tickets will be held before a court commissioner Sept. 21, he said. He noted that one driver already has accumulated 24 toll violation tickets.