Joint Subcommittee to Study Photo Enforcement of Toll Collections
October 8, 1997, Richmond
The meeting began with comments by a representative the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), who reminded the subcommittee that photo enforcement of toll collections hinges on the ability of toll road operators to obtain the names and addresses of the registered owners of vehicles that are found to be using toll facilities without paying. Since this information is available only from DMV, the feasibility of any photo enforcement project hinges, in part, on the legal authority of the department to release these data. While federal law does not bar release of such data, the department, supported by opinions from the Virginia Attorney General, believes that Virginia law restricts the release of these data to law-enforcement agencies and other governmental entities.
Unless Virginia law is changed to allow release of this information to nongovernmental toll road operators, requests for and dissemination of vehicle owner data will have to be done through a governmental entity. The DMV representative noted, however, that providing this information (whether directly to a toll road operator or through some governmental agency) would occasion no appreciable costs or present any administrative difficulties to the department.
The chief of police of Fairfax City and the city's director of public works briefed the subcommittee on that locality's "photo red" traffic light signal enforcement program. The chief explained that vehicle owner data are obtained from DMV via the city's police department, that the system worked well and did not interfere with or detract from other department operations, and that no additional funding or personnel were required. Both officials stressed that the program had been in operation only slightly more than one month and that no really useful data had yet been produced on the number of violations, the effectiveness of the system, or the ability of the program to cover its costs through penalties paid by violators. This sort of information will only be available after the system has been in full operation for at least six months. Given these caveats, they agreed that they expected about half of all violators would pay the $50 civil penalty after the first notice (without the issuance of a summons or any court appearance) and that the penalties would approximately cover the system's operating costs.
The state traffic engineer, speaking on behalf of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), presented the subcommittee with information on VDOT's experience with toll violations on its three toll facilities: the Coleman Bridge, the Dulles Toll Road, and the Powhite Parkway Extension. Violation rates ranged from 1.43 percent to 5.85 percent, varying from one facility to another and from one day to another. Although VDOT does not use photo-toll enforcement in the manner being contemplated by the subcommittee, it does use license numbers and vehicle owner data obtained from DMV to identify frequent and chronic violators and send them warning letters. The subcommittee was surprised to hear that 228,181 toll violations occurred on the Dulles Toll Road during July 1997 alone and that toll violations at the Coleman Bridge are costing VDOT about $90,000 per year in lost revenues.
An attorney for a company seeking to construct a toll facility in the Richmond area explained that to be successful, a toll road operation needs to move traffic quickly (to avoid discouraging use) and to prevent leakage of revenue caused by failures to pay tolls. While manned systems have little if any leakage, they are slow; completely unattended systems handle more traffic and do so more speedily, but tend to leak badly. The optimal solution, he suggested, is an automatic vehicle identification (AVI) system (one that identifies vehicles electronically and automatically debits prepaid user accounts for tolls), coupled with a photo-toll system to enable identification (and possible prosecution) of violators and reduce leakage.
Staff presented a brief memo attempting to assess the impact of a photo-toll system on the courts in Chesapeake. Assuming (based on estimates from the city) that 9,000 vehicles per day use the facility and assuming (based on VDOT and other data) a violation rate of 2 percent, there would be 180 violations per day on the Chesapeake facility. In calendar 1996 (as reported by the Virginia Supreme Court), statewide figures show 532,450 out of 1,613,650 (32.99 percent) of Virginia traffic cases waived court appearances. These figures include all traffic cases. If one assumes that two-thirds of the Chesapeake photo-toll violations go to court, this will generate 120 additional traffic cases per day for the Chesapeake courts (43,800 per year). Even if only one-quarter go to court, this still creates 16,425 cases per year. By way of contrast, the Chesapeake General District Court Clerk's office estimates that court's present traffic case load at 1,000 per year. Even taking into account differing views of what "traffic cases" are, this is quite a difference. Staff noted that given the number of assumptions and estimates (and possibly conflicting measurements) involved, these figures may be of dubious reliability.
Staff was instructed to prepare draft legislation authorizing photo enforcement of toll collections in Virginia for discussion at the subcommittee's next meeting. When this drafting is completed, the panel will meet again at the call of the chairman.
The Honorable J. Randy Forbes, Chairman
Legislative Services contact: Alan B. Wambold