HERNDON, Va. -- A short trip on the 495 Express Lanes cost a Northern Virginia driver more than $100, the result of miscommunication and conflicting stories.
Courtney Gorham accrued the unpaid toll on the express lanes in July 2013. She says she also had unpaid tolls on the Bay Bridge from the Maryland Transportation Authority and her account was sent to collections. Gorham admits she didn't update her credit card on her E-ZPass account, which caused the issue. When she learned about the problem, she contacted E-ZPass.
"I actually thought when I had gotten a notice from E-ZPass, when they asked me to pay, any violations would be taken care of," says Gorham.
WTOP Ticketbuster has come across several cases similar to Gorham's. Transurban, which operates the express lanes, and E-ZPass are two separate companies. E-ZPass allows you to ride on the 495 Express Lanes, the Intercounty Connector and to cross bridges and pay other tolls in Maryland and Virginia.
The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority operates the Dulles Toll Road and the Maryland Transportation Authority runs the the Intercounty Connector.
Fixing a problem with an E-ZPass account only ensures future trips will go correctly. Drivers still must directly contact Transurban, the airports authority or the transit authority, or any other agency, to fix past debts. Otherwise past tolls and penalties could escalate.
That's what happened to Gorham. In September, she says she received a collections letter from Law Enforcement Systems LLC of Wisconsin. Her original $1.50 toll from Manhandle to Herndon had escalated to $101.50.
"Failure to pay this debt within 30 days of this notice date will result in your account being listed with the national credit bureau," the letter reads.
"It was surprising to get this letter. I do work pretty hard to keep my credit and getting a letter from a collections agency was like 'Oh! I better take care of this'," says Gorham.
At issue, whether Transurban ever notified Gorham about her outstanding toll before it went into collections.
Transurban gives drivers two warnings before an overdue account goes to collections. The first notice has a $12.50 administrative fee and comes five days later. The second notice comes 30 days later and has a $25 fee. If neither are paid, then the invoice goes to collections and the driver is charged a $100 fee.
For Gorham, the first notice would have come in July. Her second notice in August. Then it went into collections in September 2013. But she says she never got the notices.
"I do get a lot of junk mail. If it looked like junk mail, then I can't say I didn't throw it away. But anything that looks like a bill I open. I didn't get it," says Gorham.
Transurban says it believes Gorham did get the notices, but probably threw them out.
"There are steps we have in place with our mailhouse provider to ensure that these invoices are actually being sent to the drivers. It's up to the driver to make sure they respond to that invoice in a timely manner to make sure the fees don't escalate or go to collections," says Transurban spokesman Mike McGurk.
However, he says the company only knows that the mail was sent through the U.S. Post Office. It does not track, nor can it prove, that a notice actually is put in the driver's mailbox. Transurban does not use certified mail.
"What we're doing is standard industry practice. If you look at other similar toll facilities or other organization that are requesting payment of the debt, they send an invoice via the mail," says McGurk.
MDTA, MWAA, and the District Department of Motor Vehicles do not use delivery confirmation or certified mail either.
But McGurk would not comment on whether Transurban would be interested in raising the bar past the industry standard, and charge an extra dollar to add delivery confirmation onto their invoices.
Gorham ended up paying her $101.50, but she says she also had unpaid tolls at the Bay Bridge and MDTA handled her case much better than Transurban.
"Things were much smoother with Maryland. I was able to go on their website, find my unpaid tolls, talk to someone, get the issue resolved quickly and paid them. My experience in Maryland was much better," says Gorham. "I will never use the 495 Express Lanes again and I will probably not use the ones on (Interstate) 95 either because of this experience."
Her advice to other drivers is to be more aware of the credit card attached to their E-ZPass and make sure the account is replenished.
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