Posted: 12:02 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013

Thousands of toll cheats crossing Bay Area bridges for free

Bay Area bridge toll cheats
Bay Area bridge toll cheats

By Jana Katsuyama

OAKLAND, Calif. —

A KTVU investigation has learned there are hundreds of thousands of drivers who are crossing Bay Area toll bridges for free and getting away with it.

The investigation began when Oakland resident Avery Turner contacted KTVU and said thieves stole the front and back license plates from his new Mercedes.

"It looks like they just ripped that completely out of there," said Turner.

Those plates were not official California license plates, but the temporary cardboard dealer plates often seen on newly purchased cars. Those cardboard plates typically display information on the dealership and do not have any number or identification linked to the vehicle’s owner.

"It's just advertisement for the dealership, so that's why I didn't understand what would they want with that. What's the benefit of having that? "asked  Turner. "So when I started asking around, some people said 'Man, they might be doing robberies. They might be going over the bridge for free.'"

Bay Area bridge tolls range from $2.50 to $6 dollars per vehicle. Vehicles that don't use FasTrak electronic toll payment must stop at the toll booth to pay. If they do not stop, a system of four cameras -- two in front of the car and two behind the vehicle -- take photos of the license plates.

KTVU checked with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to find out how many blank dealer plates are going through toll plazas at the seven bridges it manages including Antioch, Benicia-Martinez, Carquinez, Bay Bridge, Richmond-San Rafael, San Mateo and Dumbarton.

In the investigation, KTVU learned that those blank plates are recorded as "no plate" violations, indicating the toll cameras show no license plate on the vehicle.

Data obtained from the MTC listed the number of "no plate" violations for one full year from last September 2012. August 2013 was surprisingly high. It showed an average of 100,000 vehicles per month crossed Bay Area bridges with no official license plate and without paying the toll.

  "What we're referring to is what is known in the trade as 'dealer blanks,'" said MTC spokesman John Goodwin. "Those are registered as no license plate. It's not traceable to any particular vehicle."

That could mean as much as $4 million to $6 million dollars a year in lost toll revenue for the MTC and taxpayers.

Goodwin said the MTC has tried to fix the problem.

"MTC for years has advocated for a change in state law that would require any car before it leaves the lot to have a license plate," Goodwin said.

So far, the MTC has had no success in Sacramento getting a bill passed.

"Those folks that are using the toll bridges and not paying put a greater onus of those who do pay our tolls," Goodwin said.

If caught, the penalty for toll violators starts at $25 and increases from there.

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