Paul Briley knew a bill was coming. He’d crossed the Bay Bridge a dozen times for work and to make sure his grandmother was taking her medicine. With bridge tolls at $6 a pop, he had a good idea how much he’d racked up.
But he’d recently moved from his home in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood, and the invoices weren’t reaching him. By the time they did, the scale of his debt had mutated into something truly shocking. Not only was each $6 toll saddled with a $25 fine, each one had a $45 late fee attached. Briley owed $912 on $72 in tolls – more than 12 times the original amount, more than a 1,000% mark-up, and more, much more than he could spare.
“I want to pay the tolls,” Briley said. “But I simply cannot afford that much.”
Who can? Studies show more than half of all Americans cannot afford an unexpected $400 emergency expense. And yet Briley and the thousands of Bay Area residents like him have few options.
The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which oversees the Bays’ toll bridges, does not offer payment plans – demanding instead that people pay off their debt all at once. If they cannot pay, they can be blocked from registering their vehicles, a draconian response that only makes it harder for poor people to get to work and to pay the debt that caused the problem in the first place.
It’s a state of affairs in need of hard scrutiny. Should a public agency charge late penalties that metastasize the original toll by 1,000% and drive already poor people deeper into debt? Should livelihoods be ruined if they cannot pay? Should the Metropolitan Transportation Commission pursue such policies even when they’re negligible to its bottom line?
Thankfully a coalition of organizations, including the San Francisco Financial Justice Project, GLIDE, and SPUR, is calling on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to exercise some common sense. An MTC subcommittee is considering the reforms at an Oct. 13 committee meeting. The coalition asserts that fines and late fees are blunt instruments that hit people very differently depending on the size of their wallets, yielding all kinds of unintended consequences.
In 2019, there were 5 million instances of unpaid tolls at Bay Area bridges resulting in violation notices, according to forthcoming research by SPUR, a nonprofit public policy organization in the Bay Area. More than 1 million of those violation letters went to just 20 ZIP codes in the nine-county Bay Area. These are ZIP codes that have higher poverty rates and more racial diversity. In San Francisco, the neighborhoods most disproportionately represented were Bayview and Hunters Point, two of the last remaining enclaves in the city with large Black populations.
Will our bridges go broke if they fix the class and racial inequity implicit in these penalties? Hardly. Less than 1% of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s budget comes from penalties for nonpayment. The penalties are classic “high pain, low gain” follies – inflicting hardship on vast numbers of struggling residents while bringing in very little to show for it.
What can be done instead? To begin, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission can build on reforms they implemented during the pandemic. To their credit, they suspended all late fines and fees during the pandemic and eliminated registration holds on people’s cars. A similar spirit of fairness is needed going forward.
The coalition of community organizations is calling on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to implement several solutions.
First, dramatically lower the $25 fine and eliminate the $45 late fee. No one should be forced to pay 10 times the original toll if they’re late or cannot afford it.
Second, put an end to slapping registration holds on people’s vehicles if they cannot pay off their debt. Undermining people’s ability to support themselves is too extreme a penalty for the infraction.
Third, bring the notification system into the 21st century and let people know they owe tolls by text and email as well as via letter.
And finally, offer free payment plans to people like Briley unable to pay a lump sum.
Other places have implemented similar reforms. Illinois recently cut its late fines on bridge tolls to $3. New York’s E-ZPass just created an app that allows people to receive notifications and pay tolls or fines on their phone. The San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency and San Francisco Traffic Court have each taken steps to make their fines and fees less punishing of the poor.
The Metropolitan Transportation Commission is on record as wanting to do its part in creating a fairer world. In 2019, it adopted an equity platform that advocated advancing policies to “meaningfully reverse disparities” through “investments and policies” directed at “people with low incomes and communities of color.” There is no better way for the commission to give meaning to those words than by taking action to implement these reforms.
At the Oct. 13 meeting, I hope the committee explores larger questions as well. Should the poorest among us pay the same amount to get to work? A $6 toll fee takes a bigger bite out of a minimum-wage paycheck than that of a tech worker.
And let’s remember who is crossing the bridge these days and paying the tolls. Not people like me who have the privilege of working from home. It’s people who have to go in – it’s people who work at schools and restaurants and are essential workers. They deserve better than this. And we can do better by them.