New York State Exposed Follow-up: Thruway toll money

Posted at: 12/02/2013 9:08 AM
Updated at: 12/02/2013 6:57 PM
By: Janet Lomax

Toll booth operators arrested for misappropriation of funds. Some suspended or fined for cash shortages. It happens with toll road systems across the country and while the vast majority of collectors on the New York State Thruway are honest, the executive director of the New York State Thruway Authority says it does happen.

Since our last report on the New York State Thruway we have heard from a lot of you. Some have no problem paying the tolls and complimented the services you get, but a lot of you complained about being nickel and dimed and some still question why you have to pay and where your money is going,

Sheila Lerner said, "I had a terrible experience regarding the New York State Thruway and its tolls."  The 67-year-old retired nurse was driving to New Jersey back in August. She says as she approached the toll booth, she was in the wrong lane. She was in an E-ZPass lane but because of traffic she couldn't get to the right toll booth to pay cash.

She called the Thruway Authority when she got to her destination 45 minutes later. "They said someone would get back to me. No one did and I got a fine of $25 plus the $18.35 I owed for the toll for a total due of $43.35. This is wrong!” She calls it highway robbery. "I was honest. I said I didn't pay the toll and I will pay the toll."

But that $25 fine? Lerner says no way is she paying it, even though the Thruway Authority is threatening to turn it over to a collection agency.

We sent an email to Albany and asked about that fine. This is the response we got: "If a motorist inadvertently travels through an E-ZPass lane she or he will receive an administrative notice for a maximum toll and will be charged a $5 administrative fee to cover the Thruway's processing cost. The Thruway reduced the fee associated with the administrative notice from $25 to $5 in April 2013."

But Lerner says she got her notice in August four months after that change and the fine was still $25.

We heard from other drivers who also use cash who complained about being short changed.
Helen wrote on Facebook, “Gave them a $20 for a $6 toll. Only got $4 back. My husband immediately stopped and went back for it. (There was) no discussion so we figured she knew exactly what she was doing."

To be fair, we don't know if those cases were deliberate or just honest mistakes but the man who runs the Thruway Authority says with 1,300 full time and part-time toll collectors, 282 toll booths and nearly 60 million transactions a year, it does happen. Thomas Madison said, “Sometimes there are instances, although there are very few, where someone is in a toll booth doing something they're not supposed to do and we're very serious about monitoring that and taking swift action to make sure nothing happens again,"

His agency supplied these figures: “Between 2010 and 2013, 10 toll collectors were arrested for misappropriation of Thruway Authority funds, 38 were subject to disciplinary action including termination, suspension, monetary fine, disciplinary probation or a combination thereof as a result of cash shortages or variances."

But Madison says they use a combination of surveillance and internal financial auditing to monitor what goes on inside the toll booths -- E-ZPass included. Workers have to undergo pre-screening and fingerprinting and they are bonded too. Before they can work alone they must complete an extensive five-day training program.

Madison says drivers on the New York State Thruway pay a premium and expect a premium service in return, which includes looking into complaints. "We investigate every single claim to make sure that our customers, no matter how big or small the amount, to make sure that if we find through the investigation process that you are due that money, we will get it back to you."

Last year the Thruway provided 384 refunds. That's $3,343.05 back into the pockets of motorists.

To avoid possible problems at the toll booths, motorists need to take responsibility too -- try to have the correct change if you don't have E-ZPass, count your change before you rush off and if you think a mistake has been made, you can contact the Thruway Authority's Customer Service Hotline at 518-436-2805 or send an e-mail. Whatever you do, Madison says don't pull over and try to go back to the toll booth because that creates a safety hazard for you and other drivers as well.