California’s failure to require that new cars with no license plates have some form of visible identification is costing the Bay Area nearly $13 million a year in tolls, as drivers take advantage of what amounts to a free ride across bridges.
That dollar loss is growing, according to records obtained by The Chronicle. More than 2.5 million vehicles passed through FasTrak lanes at the seven state-owned bridges in 2016 without license plates or toll tags and without stopping to hand over cash — a nearly fivefold increase from a decade ago.
And nothing is going to change until 2019, when a new state law requires shiny new cars, and used ones sold by dealers, to have visible and unique temporary plates before they roll off the lots.
Many of the Bay Area’s toll scofflaws are abusing the state’s antiquated system for registering and licensing new cars. While drivers wait for their metal license plates to arrive by mail, dealers stuff paper advertisements inside the license plate frames and affix a credit card-size notice of sale to the inside of the windshield.
The FasTrak electronic toll collection system uses cameras to capture images of the front and rear license plates of cars that don’t have transponders to pay their tolls. But with these paper plates, there are no numbers or letters to snap and run through the computers to determine who should be sent a bill for the toll.
Officer John Fransen, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol, said the paper plate problem has become pervasive.
“We routinely pull toll evaders over,” he said. “It’s not hard to spot them since they go through the FasTrak lane. You see the flash. You see the paper plates. We can pull them over if there’s no registration on the windshield. Sometimes you even get a closer look and see that there’s just a blank piece of paper there.”
At $5 a pop, except at the Bay Bridge, where tolls are $6 during weekday commute hours and $4 the rest of the day, the lost revenue adds up quickly. While the scofflaws are saving cash, the Bay Area is being robbed of money that could be used for a variety of bridge, highway and transit improvements.
“We’d have more money available for a whole range of things, from maintenance and operations to express buses and ferry service and a little bit for BART,” said John Goodwin, a spokesman for the Bay Area Toll Authority, which oversees bridge operations. “All of those accounts would be flusher.”
Legislation driven by Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-San Mateo, and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year, will put an end to the paper plates and should reduce the number of toll cheats without plates. Before a new car can leave the lot, dealers will have to affix temporary plates, made of a sturdier cardboard, with identifiable numbers or letters, on the front and back ends of cars.
But the law will not take effect until Jan. 1, 2019. Mullin said that he pressed the Department of Motor Vehicles to start sooner but that officials said they needed more time to develop a system to issue the temporary plates.
DMV spokesman Artemio Armenta said the agency is working on a system that will allow car dealers to electronically report a vehicle sale and issue temporary plates on the spot.
Figures supplied by the Bay Area Toll Authority show that the freebie problem is growing. The 2.5 million toll-free trips taken by drivers without license plates last year on the Bay Area’s state-owned bridges — all except the Golden Gate — were nearly five times as many as the 518,426 free rides in 2006. Traffic through the toll plazas rose by just 8 percent during the same period.
No one knows why the number of freeloaders is rising, although some have speculated that one reason is the surge in Uber and Lyft drivers. Both ride-hailing companies have arrangements for drivers to buy, lease or rent vehicles, and for up to three months, those cars may not have plates.
Transportation officials say that might be a part of the problem, but because ride-hailing companies aren’t required to make public the number of their drivers working the streets and bridges, it’s impossible to know for sure.
Drivers for ride services are required to follow state law, which mandates that owners put new plates on their cars as soon as they arrive and within 90 days at the most. Of course, the law also requires drivers without plates to pay tolls.
Uber reminds drivers with new cars to put on their plates within 90 days and says it will ban them from driving if they don’t. Lyft declined to comment on its policies for drivers with new cars.
Mullin used to serve on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Bay Area Toll Authority, and authored AB516 at the request of those agencies. He thinks the problem is mostly caused by people trying to save a few bucks, whether they’re Uber or Lyft drivers or everyday commuters.
“I’m sort of suspecting folks get their plates within a couple of weeks and just keep them in their vehicles, in their back seats or something, while evading the toll,” Mullin said. “This is about fairness and people paying their tolls and doing the right thing.”
Mullin, who crosses the Bay Bridge almost daily on his commute to and from the state Capitol, said he’s seen an increasing number of drivers with paper plates at the toll plaza. He’s eager to put a dent in their scam.
“I’m heartened by the fact that we are going to change,” he said. “But I wish we could change tomorrow. It can’t come soon enough.”
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