We have exposed tens of thousands of dollars in fines drivers have been hit with for accidentally missing tolls on their E-ZPass Express Lanes in Virginia. The company that operates those lanes, Transurban, responded to our story by capping the fines and fees at $2,500, but many commuters say that is still too much.
Almost everyone I have interviewed in this series of reports has asked me why the state lawmakers haven't stepped in to help them.
"You wonder if these lawmakers realize that they signed up for this type of extortion when they signed up with this partnership with this company," said Lisa Stanglin.
A collections agency contacted her in September that she owed thousands of dollars for less than $30 in missed tolls.
"They're government roads. How does a private company regulating what we charge to go places?" asked Chris Lane.
Transurban sued Chris for $30,000 for less than $50 of missed tolls. He settled for $4,600.
"If the politicians are allowing it, what can we do? Vote someone else in? They should be on our side, but they're not," said Miranda Ford.
She was sued by Transurban for $6,000 for Miranda missed $27 in tolls. She settled for $1,100.
So, why the silence in Richmond?
Could it be that Transurban has spent almost $2.5 billion to build the E-ZPass lanes on the Beltway and I-95?
Or is it because Transurban gives political money? Unlike federal campaign laws, Virginia allows corporations to give directly to candidates. Also, Virginia has no limits on donations from corporations.
The non-partisan Virginia Public Access Project tracks money in politics.
According to their reports, Transurban has given almost half of a million dollars -- $445,710 to state politicians in the last ten years. Sixty percent of the donations went to Republicans while 40 percent went to Democrats. The Republicans are in control of the state legislature.
I went to Richmond to ask the lawmakers directly why they haven't helped people with these massive fines.
Delegate Tom Rust is the chairman of the key Transportation Committee. He has gotten $4,000 from Transurban.
"It's perfectly legal, and I don't think it influences our decision one bit," Rust said of the political donations.
Chairman Rust often cites Transurban's press releases.
"[Transurban] made a substantial change in their policy about three or four months ago," he said. "So basically, folks who [miss a toll] the first time – unintentional -- their transponder is not working right, not located in the right place, they have insufficient funds, they're basically not fined."
Rust isn't hearing from voters about the excess fines.
"You're the first who has come to me with this kind of incident," he told me. "I'm simply relying on what Transurban told us they were going to do. And I think they, to the best of my knowledge, is trying to do it in good faith."
Delegate Dave Albo wrote the original law in 2004. It created this private-public partnership for the Express Lanes in Virginia. His campaign got $3,500 from Transurban.
I asked Albo if he thought that the citizens have the impression that they can't get a fair shake with their representatives because Transurban has given money to almost everyone in Richmond.
"I've never gotten anything from Transurban. My campaign has received contributions. So I don't like when anyone says you've gotten something because we never get anything." Albo responded.
He said that, despite the problems, the lanes have helped with congestion.
"Obviously this didn't turn out the way we wanted it," said Albo. "We didn't have $1.5 billion to widen the beltway. Transurban did. "In fact, Transurban just put in another $100 million because revenue was lower than expected."
The Virginia assembly is only in session one month in odd numbered years. Draft legislation had to be submitted months earlier. The earliest opportunity for any kind of legal change for the Express Lanes will be January 2016.
Delegate Jim LeMunyon asked the Transportation Accountability Commission (a joint House and Senate group) to review the tolling operations in northern Virginia.
"I think what we need to do -- now that this has been operational on the Beltway for more than a year -- and now on I-95 -- is take a step back and say, ‘How is this working?'" said LeMunyon. "The principle objective of course is reduce traffic. How is that going?"
LeMunyon has gotten $750 in campaign donations from Transurban.
"I can only speak for myself, but when people draw these things to my attention, including sending me copies of some news stories you've done, we've responded right away," said LeMunyon.
The joint commission will come up with specific recommendations for the legislature, but some ideas are already bouncing around Richmond.
"The problem with the HOT lanes is something we just didn't think about -- you're going under these sensors, and there's no red light to tell you that there's a problem," said Albo.
He added, "I've asked [Transurban] to look at some technological changes -- maybe a system where you automatically get notification through email or people want to set up a text system."
Another possible reform is to give people a chance to resolve things before getting dragged into court.
"People could go to a neutral evaluator and show their stuff and see whether they need to be taken to court or not," said Albo.
Transportation committee chairman Rust seems open to change, but not until next year at the earliest.
"Since it just started, probably we need to see if this trend continues," Rust said. "If the trend continues, then I think the legislature will step in."
I asked Transurban for comment on their lobbyists and political donations, but the company did not respond.
I get a lot of email from people asking me what to do about these big fines on the EZ-Pass express lanes. The best way to change the system is to contact the Virginia state representatives. You can click here to look up their names and contact information: http://virginiageneralassembly.gov/membersAndSession.php?secid=1&activesec=0#!hb=1&mainContentTabs=0
The General Assembly this year is in session until the end of February.
Keep in mind, every member of the legislature is up for re-election this year.
Click below to read all of the stories in my ongoing investigation into the fines on the Express Lanes: