FasTrak frustration: Months of billing errors

September 24, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
You see them every day. Thousands of people zipping through the FasTrak lanes at Bay Area bridges. It's fast and it's automatic, but it's not always foolproof.

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Every time those transponders beep in the toll booth, somebody gets charged. But who is it? An El Cerrito woman was shocked to find out she was paying hundreds of dollars in bridge tolls for a complete stranger.

Peggy Ryan's family has four cars, five drivers, and three FasTrak toll tags. Still, Ryan noticed her FasTrak bills seemed higher than they should be.

"We're not commuters," said Ryan. "Nobody in my family commutes across a bridge."

Yet FasTrak was billing her $60 to $70 per month for bridge tolls. So Ryan examined her account closely and was shocked to find dozens of charges for trips across bridges that nobody in the family uses.

"Daily trips, commuter trips, two and three trips over a bridge. The Dumbarton was a big one. San Mateo is a bridge I almost never go over. Benicia Bridge same thing," she said. "I thought hmmm, what is my husband doing at night? I'm embarrassed I had to ask."

She asked her three grown children about the tolls, too.

"Did you drive down to San Mateo? Have you been over to Vallejo? What are you guys doing?" she asked her children.

Nobody could explain the charges, so Ryan looked even closer.

"I found one transponder was, you know, the devil," she said.

It turns out one of the toll tags was racking up all the charges. But guess what? The number on that tag did not match any of the actual transponders in her cars.

She contacted FasTrak which tracked the problem down.

"I was mailed the wrong transponder. Someone else was mailed mine," said Ryan. "That person used it frequently and wasn't paying for it. I had his transponder, used it almost never."

Unbeknownst to them, Ryan and some stranger were paying each other's tolls, and she was getting the short end of that deal.

"My usage was one or two trips a month. His usage was a daily, if not twice a day trip over a bridge," she said.

FasTrak promised to fix things. Ryan sent back her misdirected toll tag, but the other drive did not, and so she was still getting billed for the other driver's tag. Months went by and the other guy was driving just about every bridge in the Bay Area. So Ryan tried to shut her account, but FasTrak said she would still be responsible for the missing toll tag and she should be patient while they located it.

"Meanwhile, mister happy commuter is having a great time," she said.

To top it off, FasTrak said it would not cut the other guy off because -- get this -- his account was in good standing.

"But I was the one paying the bills!" said Ryan.

After 18 months of sheer frustration, Ryan had had enough.

"So then I thought, call 7 On Your Side," she said. "Maybe they'll help me."

And 7 On Your Side did help. After our inquiry, FasTrak did some fast tracking. It found the man using her toll tag and reassigned it to his account. They then counted up $528 worth of his tolls that Ryan should not have paid.

"And within 24 hours I got a phone call from FasTrak saying here's your money," said Ryan.

"I can't give you a good explanation for why it took 18 months for this to happen," said John Goodwin of FasTrak. "When 7 On Your Side eventually contacted us at the Bay Area Toll Authority, we were able to make this change, get it all taken care of in a single day."

Goodwin says this should have been a quick and easy fix, and he's pretty candid about that.

"There's no amount of perfume I could apply to this that's going to make it stink any less," he said.

FasTrak did bill the other driver $528 and credited him the $20 he had paid for Ryan's tolls. He apparently did not know he was getting a free ride all that time. But now everybody is paying their own way.

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