Car Guy Cuomo Targets Jerks who Deface License Plates to Avoid Tolls

These drivers could be in for an interesting new tolling method. Photo: MTA
These drivers could be in for an interesting new tolling method. Photo: MTA

Gov. Cuomo’s focus on fare beating is finally going to start applying to drivers.

This year’s state budget contains a provision that would raise the penalty for evading a bridge toll to misdemeanor “theft of services” — the same charge that applies to fare evasion on the bus and subway, or a max of a year in prison and a $1,000 fine. A second provision would raise the fine for passing a cashless tollbooth with an unreadable license plate from $25 to a minimum of $100.

The timing is certainly linked to the rollout of congestion pricing, which could start as soon as Jan. 1, 2020 with a system similar to E-Z Pass already used on bridges, highways and tunnels around the state. Equipment in the toll zone charges E-Z Pass holders seamlessly or sends a bill to drivers without E-Z Pass by reading that driver’s license plate.

Perhaps anticipating concern from drivers, Gov. Cuomo suggested toll scofflaws have been getting off easy, pining in his fashion about the good old days when armed guards patrolled toll booths run by Robert Moses, the megalomaniac power broker.

“He put armed personnel because you would have to pay the toll,” Cuomo said in the friendly confines of Alan Chartock’s upstate radio show. “We’re now the other way, you have electronic tolls, nobody is going to step out with a firearm to stop you.” (He almost sounded disappointed.)

Cuomo’s bill is not only timed to congestion pricing, but also to his incessant calls for crackdowns on fare evasion in . the subway and buses, hiring 500 new MTA cops to crack down on that particular form of “theft of service.”

The difference, of course, is that the majority of fare evaders are poor and commit the crime rarely, while car drivers who deface their license plates drive around every day committing not only “theft of service” at toll booths, but avoiding having their license plates be captured on red light or school zone speed cameras — meaning their offense is far more significant than a person who jumps a turnstile.

The anonymous keeper of the anti-corruption Twitter account @PlacardAbuse called the increased penalties for license plate defacement “encouraging,” but said Cuomo should have gone much further than merely catching scofflaw drivers in cashless tolling zones.

“It is encouraging that they are making some effort to address some of the forms of corruption we have seen proliferating,” they wrote. “[But] allowing covered or defaced license plates outside tolled areas would allow reckless drivers to continue evading safety camera enforcement. It would also reduce the opportunity to enforce these crimes through routine enforcement statewide, putting more pressure on specialized enforcement at additional cost and impact to traffic flow in the congested areas where the tolls are collected.”

It is unclear how many drivers would be subject to the new charges. Last January, journalist Steve Bodzin filed a freedom of information law request with the MTA to determine three basic things:

  • How many vehicles did MTA try to bill using camera tolls (rather than E-Z Pass or cash) on each bridge and tunnel from March 1 to Sept. 30, 2018, inclusive?
  • How often do the camera tolls fail to collect a toll because of unreadable license plates?
  • How many summonses have been given to motorists on or around your bridges and tunnels for having defaced, damaged, or otherwise unreadable license plates?

The agency has yet to respond, though it has sent Bodzin at least six emails saying that the FOIL team will have the data “in approximately twenty (20) business days.”

Bodzin is still waiting.