Thousands of B.C. drivers are being frozen out of driver’s licence or car insurance renewals because they refused or neglected to pay bridge tolls.
ICBC acts as the enforcement mechanism and it currently has refuse-to-issue notices on file against 25,000 drivers for failing to pay their Port Mann Bridge tolls and 17,000 for unpaid tolls on the Golden Ears Bridge.
By comparison, ICBC is also blocking 9,300 parents for failing to make child support payments and 4,100 TransLink fare evaders who haven’t paid their tickets.
The 25,000 drivers barred by ICBC for Port Mann tolls is an all-time high and has been as low as 10,000 at other times, according to the Transportation Investment Corp. that manages the bridge.
Maple Ridge motorcyclist Stacey (Stella) Murdoch argues it’s too heavy handed for ICBC to deny people the ability to drive without any option to gradually repay the debt over time.
“When you do that to somebody you limit what they can do,” she said. “People get into these situations but we have to give them a way to get out.”
Murdoch started the Facebook page “Golden Ears Bridge Toll Nightmares” after her husband was blocked from renewing insurance until he paid $8,000 in bridge tolls, some of which he believed were charged in error.
They rarely cross the bridge now because neither work in Langley any more.
The couple is also selling their Maple Ridge house, after which they’ll pay off the outstanding tolls.
Murdoch said she’s surprised by how many other people are in the same plight.
“I bet there are a lot of people out there driving around without driver’s licences.”
She also argues tolls unfairly hit people who live near the two toll bridges and work on the other side of the Fraser River.
“I’m not saying bridges shouldn’t be tolled. But why are people in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows specifically being straddled with this bill?” she asked. “Everybody in the Lower Mainland should be tolled on every single bridge.”
TI Corp. spokesman Greg Johnson insists the system to enforce toll payment is fair.
He said the “vast majority” of Port Mann bridge users pay their tolls on time, many of them by automatic pre-authorized payment through their TReO bridge tolling account.
A Refuse to Issue notice goes to ICBC only if a driver owes more than $25 and is 90 days overdue.
“Drivers receive at least three notifications requesting payment before being designated Refuse to Issue,” he said.
Johnson said 80 to 85 per cent of users pay after being notified and most owe relatively small amounts of less than $100.
Interest charges of 1.5 per cent a month (19 per cent annually) are added to unpaid Port Mann tolls. TransLink adds two per cent interest a month to unpaid Golden Ears Bridge tolls.
While ICBC’s monopoly on mandatory basic insurance makes it an effective stick against B.C. toll evaders, it doesn’t have the same power over out-of-province motorists.
But Johnson said TReO still gets “hundreds of payments” through its website or walk-in centres every month from drivers from elsewhere in Canada or the U.S.
The electronic tolling cameras capture the licence plates of non-B.C. vehicles and invoices are mailed out to those who don’t pay on time.
“More than 150,000 invoices have been sent to date and 80 per cent make payment on receiving their bill.”
About $3 million in total Port Mann tolls are currently unpaid – twice as much as in the fall of 2013 – and the 25,000 drivers who owe that are mostly unregistered, meaning they are billed by mail, with an extra $2.30 licence plate processing charge added to each $3 toll.
TransLink officials were unable to comment on Golden Ears Bridge toll enforcement, but said they are having more success in compelling transit fare evaders to pay their fines since the province provided new powers in 2012.
In addition to denial of insurance or licences through ICBC, TransLink can also send unpaid fines to collection agencies.
Revenue from transit fines was up 25 per cent in 2014 from the previous year as of the end of November, according to spokesperson Cheryl Ziola.
TransLink had collected $1.8 million in fines in 2014 as of Nov. 30, compared to $1.4 million in all of 2013.
Fare evasion fines start at $173 but climb to $213 after six months and $273 if they’re unpaid after a year.