This is major and here's why -- most drivers have FasTrak, which automatically deducts their toll from a pre-paid account. But at least 200,000 cars per month are getting bills for their $6 tolls -- or at least they're supposed to. However, 7 On Your Side has found that is not always happening. Thousands of drivers are getting through the toll for free.
"Thanks to 7 On Your Side, a big thanks to 7 On Your Side," said Golden Gate Bridge Spokesperson Mary Currie.
Currie thanked us for uncovering a serious problem with the new all-electronic toll system.
"This is a huge find and a huge save because we can go in and fix this," said Currie.
It began when we discovered some motorists had crossed the bridge without ever paying a toll. There was never any charge, no bill, no violation, no penalty. In fact, we have learned, about 5,000 cars per month are crossing the bridge scot-free! That's about $30,000 per month in unpaid tolls.
"Any tolling system across the country has what we call leakage where you are not going to capture every single person, but this is huge for us," said Currie.
It's not that drivers are doing anything wrong. In fact, they are probably unaware they are getting a free ride. Instead, the problem is buried in the computers of the electronic toll collecting system.
"There were some codes that were going to the DMV from our system that weren't being read correctly," said Currie.
It happens when cars cross the bridge without FasTrak or prepaid toll. A camera snaps their license plate and they get an invoice in the mail. About 200,000 motorists per month should get that bill, but then there are folks like Shelly Kilburn of Palm Desert.
"I emailed them and said, 'Hey, I crossed the bridge on Saturday, April 27th," said Kilburn.
Kilburn is among those who crossed the bridge, but never paid. She kept emailing officials asking them to please send her a bill for that $6 toll.
"I got a response saying, 'Thanks for your inquiry. We'll check into it.' And then I never heard back," said Kilburn.
"I crossed the bridge May 9 or 10 and was wondering, I never got a bill," said Stephanie Lachtman of Menlo Park.
Lachtman also went through without being charged. Neither she nor Kilburn knew why. Did they get a free ride or were they quietly racking up huge penalties?
"And so I wanted to share it with 7 On Your Side," said Kilburn.
We asked Currie and she looked into their cases. At first Currie said the DMV did not have Kilburn's complete address and Kilburn needed to correct it. As for Lachtman, she said the DMV did not provide any street address for her.
However, both women showed us their DMV registrations with full addressed printed on them. We pointed this out and that's when officials realized something was very wrong.
"We weren't getting the addresses and we didn't know we weren't getting the addresses," said Currie.
Bridge officials realized their computers could not capture addresses for some random license plates, like Kilburn's. It also could not read full addresses for many leased cars like Lachtman's. No address meant no bill. No bill meant no toll. Currie said the bridge district would write off those tolls as a loss. She says 5,000 non-paying cars is a small fraction of the 1.7 million cars crossing the bridge each month. Still, that is $360,000 a year in lost revenues.
"Again, thanks to 7 On Your Side we now have this issue flushed out for us and we're fixing it," said Currie.
So now the bridge district is using our information to help rebuild the system, so it can send bills to everyone. It means drivers can stop worrying about why they didn't get a bill, but on the other hand -- it also means no more free rides.