Gov. Hochul’s Executive Budget Takes Aim at Bus Lane Blockers, Toll Cheats

A driver deciding to take the Jay Street Busway could face a higher fine under Gov. Hochul's executive budget. Photo: Dave Colon
A driver deciding to take the Jay Street Busway could face a higher fine under Gov. Hochul's executive budget. Photo: Dave Colon

No free rides for drivers in the bus lane or the license plate defacers on the highways.

Gov. Hochul’s Fiscal Year 2023 budget proposal takes aim at perfidious bus lane blockers and toll scofflaws who deface their license plates, with a few tweaks to state transportation law. One proposal increases the base level fine for blocking bus lanes, another adds toll evasion to the offenses listed as “theft of services” (aka fare evasion) and another adds a fine for driving on a tolled road, bridge or tunnel.

On the bus front, Hochul’s budget proposes to raise the level for being caught on camera violating the sacred red paint to $125 for a first offense, up from the current $50. And where fines currently increase in $50 increments for every additional violation within a year (to a max of $250), Hochul’s budget creates a new schedule of fines: a second offense in a year will run a driver $150, a third will cost $200, a fourth will cost $250 and a fifth will cost $350.

From 2019 to 2021, the MTA’s fixed and bus-mounted camera issued one million tickets and have been credited with helping speed up buses on lines that have them. According to the agency, 80 percent of people who got the first $50 ticket didn’t get a second ticket.

Advocates celebrated the governor’s proposal to lower the boom on people who drive and park in bus lanes.

“Gov. Hochul’s proposal for automated bus lane enforcement is essential to delivering faster commutes that bus riders badly need,” said Riders Alliance Policy and Communications Director Danny Pearlstein. “Automated enforcement puts bus riders first on busy streets in a way that advances equity and makes the city work better for everyone. Legislators should adopt the governor’s measure and invest the proceeds from camera enforcement in better bus service for all.”

Hochul is also proposing to change the state’s fare evasion and license plate defacement laws to make toll evasion more explicitly illegal. One piece of the budget changes the state’s “theft of services” law to include tolls among the current list: “railroad, subway, bus, air, taxi, or any other public transportation service.” Hochul’s budget would add “…or to use any toll highway, parkway, road, bridge or tunnel or to enter or remain in the tolled central business district” after “public transportation service.”

If placed under the same area as the other theft of services offenses, toll evasion could be prosecuted as a violation, a Class A misdemeanor or  Class E felony, which are punished by fines or, in the case of felony convictions, prison.

In addition to turning toll evasion into a criminal offense on par with hopping the turnstile, Hochul is proposing to change the state’s Vehicle and Traffic Law to make it explicitly illegal to drive through a toll with a defaced or illegible license plate. Although Section 402, subdivision 1, paragraph (b) of the state VTL requires drivers to keep their license plates readable and prohibits covering the plate any material that makes it impossible to identify in a photo, the law does not currently explicitly say, “Also you can’t use this messed up license plate to drive through tolls.”

The new law would read, “It shall be unlawful for any person to operate, drive or park a motor vehicle on a toll highway, parkway, road, bridge and/or tunnel facility or to enter or remain in the tolled central business district … if such a number plate is not easily readable, nor shall any number plate be covered by glass or any plastic material, and shall not be knowingly covered or coated with any artificial or synthetic material or substance that conceals or obscures such number plates or that distorts a recorded or photographic image of such number plates.”

Violating the new paragraph triggers a fine of $100 to $500.

The governor’s executive budget proposals are an attempt to get done what disgraced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed in 2020 and 2021, but failed to get through the legislature. Advocates hoped that this would be the year where drivers are explicitly told they can’t just not pay a toll.

“This is very similar to what was proposed last year,” said Reinvent Albany Senior Research Analyst Rachael Fauss. “We support added enforcement for evading tolls because it’s going to be important to discourage toll evasion so that congestion pricing has as much integrity as possible, and the legislature needs to do this this year for these measures to take effect for when congestion pricing comes online in 2023.”

Hochul’s toll evasion budget language also looks to solve an embarrassing oversight that’s allowed drivers to rack up tolls and fines on one license plate and then swap out the plate for a new one. The executive budget proposal makes it illegal for any vehicle owner to “register, reregister, renew, replace or transfer” vehicle registrations if the vehicle identification number is attached to a registration that’s been suspended or if a tolling authority has requested a unpaid toll or fine block be placed on the registration.

That new law would potentially prevent the kind of toll evasion seen in the case of an MTA employee who skipped out on more than $100,000 in tolls and fines by swapping his license plate out multiple times in order to avoid having his registration suspended.

According to a Freedom of Information request by journalist Steven Bodzin, the MTA and State Police gave out 7,572 summonses to drivers for having defaced or unreadable license plates near bridges or tunnels in 2018. The agency also told Bodzin that between March 1, 2018 and Sept. 20, 2018 cameras failed to record 101,349 license plates that were unintentionally obscured and 17,115 license plates that were intentionally obscured, out of a total of 9,286,640 toll transactions.