Few take advantage of toll amnesty

Hundreds of thousands of toll violations on the Crescent City Connection remain outstanding despite an amnesty program that would waive the fines and late fees on those accounts if motorists pay the toll they owed.

Only about 2 percent of the violation accounts on record with the Department of Transportation and Development have been approved for the amnesty, meaning that about $16 million in tolls and additional charges will go to the Attorney General’s Office for collection when the amnesty offer expires on Oct. 1, according to the state Department of Transportation and Development.

Between the beginning of the amnesty on July 22 and Sept. 18, those responsible for about 6,400 violations took advantage of the program, according to DOTD. Those applicants paid about $32,000 in tolls, and the department waived about $813,000 in fees and fines.

That left about 272,000 violations worth about $574,000 in uncollected tolls and $15.6 million in those additional fees and fines, according to the state.

It’s not clear why so many who are eligible have not applied for the amnesty, DOTD spokeswoman Bambi Hall said.

State Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, who sponsored the bill creating the amnesty program, said he worries about how motorists will be affected by having outstanding violations listed on their driving records, a situation that could lead to their driver’s license being flagged or other problems.

At the same time, he said, solving the issue of outstanding toll violations for the CCC may prove unpopular outside of the New Orleans area.

“How do you delay the implementation of that, and how do you do it in such a way that people elsewhere in the state don’t feel like the people who have toll fines are getting an unfair advantage?” Morrell asked.

Others have raised concerns that many of the tolls the transportation department says it is owed may be in error — or, for cases where a violation did occur, that the state will have to spend significant sums to try to collect from people who owe a dollar or less in actual tolls.

“A lot of people are not paying because they didn’t do anything wrong and it’s not owed,” said Rep. Pat Connick, R-Marrero, one of the most vocal opponents of the CCC tolls.

The amnesty was one of several initiatives put in place to deal with the end of the tolls on the New Orleans bridge this year.

The program was designed to close the books on the toll program and allow residents to settle their debts without added fines and late fees that would no longer go directly to the bridge’s management.

“Since there’s no more authority that needs the money, collecting these fees is kind of ridiculous,” Morrell said.

there is little that those who support the amnesty can do to simply wipe the slate clean, he said.

That’s because debts owed to the state, such as the tolls themselves, cannot be simply taken off the books even if the additional charges can be waived.

“We can’t just forgive the actual dollar toll the person owes the state for the same reason we can’t just forgive taxes that are overdue,” Morrell said. “The challenge is finding some way to extend amnesty or to have more amnesty periods.”

With the next legislative session months away, its not clear how lawmakers can influence the process. The next step for DOTD is to send the violations to the state attorney general’s office, which has the ability to flag driver’s licenses and garnish wages as part of the collections process.

Asked about Morrell’s and Connick’s concerns, Hall said the transportation department is just following the law. The attorney general’s office declined to comment on how it would proceed if the toll violations are sent to it next month.

Connick also raised concerns about the accuracy of DOTD’s methods of establishing that a violation occurred.

Several constituents, after receiving notices in recent months that they owed the department money, went to his office to say they weren’t even in the New Orleans area at the time the supposed violation occurred, he said.

“Right now, there’s no process to have your due process — to say, ‘Hey, this violation is wrong,’ ” Connick said. “The whole thing smells.”

Mike Teachworth, who spearheaded the Stop the Tolls campaign that eventually did away with the tolls to cross the CCC, said the situation is “ridiculous,” particularly since he said many people are only now receiving notices of violations that were years old.

In some cases, he said, DOTD has been sending multiple notices — each of which costs 46 cents to mail — to collect on a single 40-cent toll.

“It almost feels like they’re being vindictive,” Teachworth said of the transportation department.

Residents who still want to take advantage of the amnesty program must fill out an application available at www.ccctollamnesty.com and mail it to the CCC Toll Violation Amnesty Program, P.O. Box 6297, New Orleans, LA 70174-6297. The application must be postmarked by Oct. 1 to be eligible.

With the situation still in flux, Morrell said, paying the tolls owed may be the safest path for motorists.

“It’s kind of rolling the dice,” he said of those who decide not to pay. “Everyone’s adults; that’s a choice they can make or not make.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct an error. The original story stated about 272,000 motorists still had outstanding violations and 6,400 had been approved for the amnesty program. Those figures reflect the number of violation accounts that remained open, which does not necessarily reflect the number of people who had violations. The New Orleans Advocate regrets the error.