ALBANY — Intentionally skipping out on a state Thruway or bridge toll could soon get you charged with a class A misdemeanor in New York.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $178 billion budget plan includes two measures meant to crack down on toll evasion as the state continues its shift to a cashless system that relies on cameras and sensors being able to read license plates and E-ZPass tags.
One proposal would make intentionally avoiding a toll a “theft of services” crime, a low-level misdemeanor that would put it on par with riders who skip out on taxi or train fares or jump the turnstiles in the New York City subway system.
The other would boost the current $25 fine for driving with an unreadable or obstructed license plate — but only if the driver enters a cashless tolling zone.
If approved, Cuomo’s proposal calls for a $100 minimum and $500 maximum fine if the driver enters a toll highway, bridge or the yet-to-launch congestion-pricing area in Manhattan.
“With the ongoing shift to cashless tolling, it is paramount that we ensure all users are paying their share, and this proposal implements a fine for those who purposefully obstruct their license plate from view to evade tolls,” said Freeman Klopott, spokesman for the state Budget Division.
Cashless tolling coming to Thruway
Construction started last year on the Thruway Authority’s $355 million plan to replace its traditional, human-staffed toll booths with all-electronic tolling gantries across the 450-mile paid portion of the state’s superhighway system.
It is scheduled to shift to the electronic system by the end of 2020.
Under the new system, drivers pass through the overhead gantries at highway speeds without having to stop for a toll collector.
From there, the car’s E-ZPass is automatically charged. If a car doesn’t have E-ZPass, a camera snaps a photo of its license plate so a bill can be mailed to the car owner’s home.
Cuomo’s office claims the tougher penalties would help deter drivers from trying to evade the toll, either by blocking their license plate or by any other means.
The governor previously has sounded the alarm on the need to ensure license plates are readable for the cashless-tolling cameras, proposing a plan last year that would have required every New York driver to pay to replace their plates if they were at least a decade old.
That plan was panned by lawmakers and motorists and was quickly scrapped, with Cuomo vowing to come up with a new plan this year.
But Cuomo’s office insists the newly proposed penalties for toll jumping aren’t a replacement for the original license-plate plan; Klopott said the governor’s office is still considering proposals on that front.
Shift already in place in some areas
New York already has shifted to cashless tolling in some areas, particularly on the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge in the Lower Hudson Valley and the toll bridges in New York City.
Early results from the Cuomo Bridge, which the current governor helped name after his father, showed the Thruway Authority collected more in fines than it did from tolls after making the switch.
From August 2016 through April 2018, the Thruway Authority collected $25 million from fares billed by mail and $22 million in fees and fines on the bridge, which spans Westchester and Rockland counties.
Sen. David Carlucci, D-Clarkstown, Rockland County, has been a vocal critic of the state’s cashless-tolling rollout on the Cuomo Bridge, which saw fines quickly pile up for drivers who were unfamiliar with the new system or never got their bills in the mail to begin with.
Carlucci had previously supported penalties similar to what Cuomo has proposed to crack down on toll evasion. But he said the state’s rocky rollout on the bridge has led him to reconsider.
“I’ve seen so many billing irregularities that I don’t trust the system in place to be able to decipher from someone visibly and intentionally evading the toll and those that are just some mishap with the reader,” Carlucci said Monday.
It will be up to lawmakers and Cuomo whether to include the measure in the state budget for the fiscal year that starts April 1. If approved, the boosted penalties would take effect 90 days later.
A “theft of service” crime is a class A misdemeanor, which is the state’s lowest-level misdemeanor charge.
It is legally punishable by up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine, but such crimes are often pleaded down to a violation that doesn’t carry a criminal record or jail time.
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