Toll evasion could lead to misdemeanor

Melanie Lekocevic/Columbia-Greene MediaThe Thruway toll plaza at Exit 21B in Coxsackie at sunrise on Wednesday.

If you think you can find a way to get out of paying the toll on a state bridge or highway, better think again — doing so could land you in hot water with a class A misdemeanor.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $178 billion budget for the 2021 fiscal year includes two provisions that would increase the penalties for evading tolls. In the Twin Counties, that would include the New York State Thruway and the Rip Van Winkle Bridge.

One of the provisions in the state budget would make intentionally avoiding a toll a “theft of service” crime, a low-level misdemeanor.

The second would increase the fine for driving with an unreadable or obstructed license plate if the driver enters a cashless tolling zone. Cashless tolling is being rolled out statewide in phases, but has not yet been implemented in the Twin Counties.

If approved, the governor’s proposal would raise the fine from the current $25 to a minimum of $100 and a maximum of $500.

The move comes as the state is moving to cashless tolling, with tollbooths being removed and replaced by electronic gantries with cameras mounted on them, which will read and charge the vehicle’s E-Z Pass as they pass beneath, or collect the license plate number. Drivers without E-Z Pass will be mailed a bill for the toll.

Cashless tolling was the impetus behind the governor’s proposed changes.

“With the ongoing shift to cashless tolling, it is paramount that we ensure all users are paying their share, and this proposal implements a fine for those who purposefully obstruct their license plate from view to evade tolls,” Freeman Klopott, a spokesman for the state’s Budget Division, said Tuesday.

Drivers will also be required to make sure their license plate can be easily read so the gantry cameras can identify them.

“Number plates shall be kept clean and in a condition so as to be easily readable and shall not 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” the plate number, according to the proposed state budget.

Specifics have not been released on how the new regulations would be enforced.

Chris Steber, a spokesman for the New York State Bridge Authority, said the Bridge Authority does not comment on pending legislation.

Jonathan Dougherty, deputy director of media relations and communications for the Thruway, also declined to comment on the legislation.

The two provisions are part of the governor’s proposed state budget, and it will be up to lawmakers to determine if the new penalties are included in the approved budget. If they are, the changes would take effect 90 days after the final budget’s approval.

Last year, the Thruway Authority began a $355 million construction project to replace traditional tollbooths with the electronic gantries. The entire length of the 450-mile paid portion of the Thruway will be moved to cashless tolling by the end of 2020, according to a spokesman for the New York State Thruway.

Existing tollbooths will eventually be removed. Drivers will be able to drive under the electronic gantries without stopping or slowing down.

Construction of a gantry at the entrance to the Thruway’s Exit 21B in Coxsackie began in September 2019, and is expected to conclude in March 2020, according to Work at Catskill’s Exit 21 has not yet begun and is expected to start in July of this year and be finished in September 2020.

The switch to cashless tolling will also be coming to the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, but it is not yet known when it will take place.

“The schedule is still in flux,” Bridge Authority spokesman Chris Steber said. “We are still figuring out the timeline, but eventually the Rip Van Winkle Bridge will be making the switch.”

While switching from tollbooths to cashless tolling is still in the works in the Twin Counties, some toll roads have already made the change, including the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge, formerly known as the Tappan Zee Bridge, which spans the Hudson River between Tarrytown and Nyack. Toll bridges in New York City have also switched to cashless tolling, and some neighboring states that use E-Z Pass, including Massachusetts, have also begun making the change as well.

The Tribune News Service contributed to this report.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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