To determine whether the New York State Thruway Authority ensures that efforts are made to identify, bill, and collect tolls that are due. The audit covered the period from January 2019 to January 2023.
About the Program
The New York State Thruway Authority (Authority) – a New York State public benefit corporation – operates the New York State Thruway (Thruway), a 570-mile superhighway that connects the State’s principal cities, rural areas, and tourist destinations. The Thruway comprises 496 miles including the mainline from the New York City line at Yonkers to Buffalo and the Erie Section. There are also an additional five segments: Niagara Section, Berkshire Section, New England Section, Garden State Parkway Connector, and the Cross Westchester Expressway. It has 816 bridges, 134 interchanges, and 27 travel plazas. The Authority is vested by New York State laws and regulations to assess and collect toll revenues for use of the Thruway.
In November 2020, the Authority completed a system-wide conversion to cashless tolling, which was intended to reduce congestion, improve traffic flow, and allow for non-stop travel on the Thruway. The Authority contracts with third-party vendors for cashless tolling, invoicing, and receivables collection. Tolls account for more than 90% of the Authority’s revenues, including tolls for use of the Thruway and fees charged to customers who do not settle their accounts timely. E-ZPass accounts for approximately 90% of tolls, with Tolls by Mail accounting for approximately 10%. During the 3 years beginning January 2019, the Authority reported $775 million, $649 million, and $804 million in tolls and related revenues, respectively. The Authority attributed the decrease in 2020 to reduced passenger traffic during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the Authority, accounts are referred to a collection agency when customers do not pay the amounts due within 120 days after being sent the last of three notices over a 90-day period. Prior to the completion of system-wide cashless tolling in November 2020, an E-ZPass customer with a negative balance for more than 60 days after being sent a revocation warning notice at 30 days may have also been referred to a collection agency.
Additionally, the Authority can request that the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) suspend the registrations of motor vehicles for non-payment of tolls, fees, or other charges with three or more violations within a 5-year period. Additionally, DMV has a reciprocity agreement with the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles for collecting outstanding tolls and fees or suspending vehicle registrations. The Authority advised us that there is a 6-year statute of limitations for the collection of tolls and fees.
The Authority needs to improve efforts to identify, bill, and collect tolls that are due. As of March 2023, there was a total of $276.3 million in unpaid tolls and fees in collection status.
- Out-of-state drivers account for a significant amount of these outstanding tolls and fees, representing 46% of the transactions and 43%, or $119.3 million, of the amounts due, of which $50.9 million were from vehicles registered in two states – New Jersey ($34.2 million) and Connecticut ($16.7 million).
- There was a 9½-month gap during which no outside collection agency was actively pursuing amounts that were due for collections, in part because of the awarding of a new contract. However, the Authority stated that, during this period, it continued to receive remittances from customers in a collection status.
- The Authority placed $127.6 million of outstanding debt – unpaid tolls and violation fees – from 2020 with the new collection agency to implement a COVID-19 Settlement Relief Program (Program), whereby the $127.6 million was used to dismiss a portion of the violation fees. Most of the vehicles for which fees were dismissed (55%) were registered outside of New York State, and the $33 million dismissed for these vehicles represented 32% of the total $103.4 million in outstanding violation fees in the Program.
- Using data provided by the Authority, we determined that, on January 9, 2023, there were 257,917 past-due accounts that met the criteria for registration suspension; 49,740 of these customers are persistent violators (current Thruway users with outstanding balances during each year since 2017). However, the Authority does not take such factors into consideration when determining which license plates to suspend. Since restarting the registration suspension program in July 2022, the Authority has referred 60 or fewer license plate numbers to DMV weekly.
- There were 25,617 outstanding accounts from Massachusetts, totaling $6.5 million in tolls and fees, including 7,274 that met the suspension criteria. However, the Authority did not initiate the process for suspension of any Massachusetts plates despite having a reciprocity agreement.
We also determined that the Authority is not maximizing its use of images to identify vehicles more accurately for toll collection. We requested and were provided with the rejected transactions for 3 weeks – from April 25, 2022 through May 8, 2022 and May 16, 2022 through May 22, 2022 – for both mainline segments, where the toll amount is based on the distance between entry and exit points, and barrier, where the toll amount is based on fixed tolling systems. Of the 135,973 rejected transactions, we sampled 161 and determined that 11% of the transactions rejected by the automated and manual review of images could have been billed. Additionally, we separated the rejected images into controllable factors (e.g., image too dark, too bright) and uncontrollable factors (e.g., weather conditions) and estimated that the value of unpaid tolls for the rejected images with controllable factors is $7.2 million a year.
- Ensure that when there is a change in collection vendors, there is a smooth transition with no gaps in services.
- Establish procedures for dismissing violation fees, including the selection criteria and the basis for the amounts dismissed.
- Analyze the information for the accounts eligible for registration suspension to determine where collection efforts will have the best results, and assess the feasibility and cost-benefit of entering into agreements with additional states (in addition to Massachusetts) for registration suspensions.
- Ensure that all images rejected by the automated process that are identifiable through a manual review are billed.
- Monitor trends in the incidences of rejected images and take appropriate corrective actions.
State Government Accountability Contact Information:
Audit Director: Carmen Maldonado
Phone: (212) 417-5200; Email: [email protected]
Address: Office of the State Comptroller; Division of State Government Accountability; 110 State Street, 11th Floor; Albany, NY 12236