Retired schoolteacher Richann Flynn lives a quiet life with her poodle, Tara, on the family alfalfa farm in the northeast corner of California. She has elbow room, friends to play cards with and ranch chores to keep her young.
Since last year, though, the 74-year-old’s days have become headaches. She started getting notices from the Bay Area Toll Authority, the agency that oversees seven state bridges, accusing her of driving across those bridges without paying the toll.
As of this month, she’s pulled 55 violation notices out of her mailbox, each for a separate illegal bridge crossing, each telling her to send in $30 in fees and evasion penalties. But Flynn, whose Modoc County homestead is as far north as you can get from the Bay Area without crossing into Oregon, says she hasn’t driven her pickup the five-plus hours to any of those bridges in 15 years.
Most of the notices display a grainy black and white photo of a sedan with the license plate 7AOU290. When Flynn got the first citation, she went out to her barn where her pickup is parked to look at her plate and saw 7AO1290.
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“I looked at that 1 and I said this is a U,” she said pointing to the mailed notice. “This isn’t my vehicle!”
It got her Irish dander up, she says. She called the toll authority’s FasTrak customer service center in San Francisco and told them there is no way she was going to pay.
That was the first of ten or more frustrating conversations over the last year, she said. Several times, FasTrak representatives agreed the vehicles in the photos weren’t hers. They said they’d annul the citation and flag her license in their automated system.
But the citations kept coming. The most recent arrived two weeks ago. At one point, she managed to get a letter from toll officials to take to the Department of Motor Vehicles, a two-hour round-trip, to get a lien taken off her pickup so she could re-register it.
Flynn showed the citations last week to a visiting Sacramento Bee reporter, pulling a rubber band off the inch-thick stack, and carefully laying the papers out, neatly overlapping them one by one on her dining room and kitchen tables, along with “scribbly” handwritten notes of conversations with FasTrak.
“It’s a headache, basically,” she said, surveying the documents covering both tables. “I wake up at night.”
That headache may finally be over. Tired of feeling like a nobody caught in the axles of bureaucracy, Flynn called the office of state Sen. Ted Gaines, R-El Dorado Hills. Gaines, who sits on the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, took up her cause, sending a terse letter last week to the toll authority.
“I am deeply concerned that FasTrak continues to incorrectly issue tickets to my constituent, who happens to be a senior citizen, and a cancer survivor, and someone who does not need to be harried by an automated system,” Gaines wrote.
A few days later, BATA and FasTrak spokesman John Goodwin offered a mea culpa.
Goodwin, in an interview with The Bee, said the agency’s automated system does make mistakes on occasion, but Flynn’s situation may be the longest-duration dispute he has seen at his agency. The problem was twofold: FasTrak’s optical license plate recognition system apparently repeatedly misread two very similar license plates as Flynn’s, he said, and customer service workers apparently repeatedly failed to flag her license plate.
The plates in question belong to legitimate FasTrak customers, he said. Those cars probably triggered the license plate photos when toll booth monitoring devices failed to detect the vehicles’ transponders.
“I apologize to Ms. Flynn. There is no excuse,” Goodwin said. “This went on far, far too long. We simply did not follow our own procedures.”
Flynn received a “toll dismissal” letter from FasTrak this week assuring her that the “inefficient handling of your toll dispute” is not typical.
But the letter left Flynn concerned that her bureaucratic entanglement may not really have ended. It didn’t explain what went wrong, it didn’t explicitly say that all of her tickets were dismissed, nor did it say what steps the agency is taking to make sure Flynn doesn’t continue to get citations.
“There isn’t even a (signature) on the letter,” Flynn said.
The letter also didn’t sit well with Gaines. He sent a follow-up letter this week to FasTrak, reminding them that he is on the Senate transportation committee, and asking them to tell him how many erroneous violations the agency has issued in the last two years, what plans it has to improve its automated license plate recognition system, and what it intends to do to improve its dispute resolution process.
BATA officials said they had not yet received Gaines’ letter. Speaking to The Bee last week, BATA spokesman Goodwin said the FasTrak system “works 99.9 percent of the time, but it’s not flawless.”
Goodwin said there were 85 million FasTrak transactions on the seven state-owned Bay Area bridges in the 2014-15 fiscal year. If one-tenth of one percent are misread by the system, that means 85,000 mistakes a year. Goodwin said FasTrak typically fixes those mistakes after one or two erroneous tickets are discovered.
He said those mistakes sometimes happen when the license plate frame obscures part of the lettering, when the camera lens is not clean, or when a reflection obscures letters or numbers. The machine can confuse Es and Fs, as well as 7s and Zs, Qs and Os, Ts and Is, and other similar letters or numbers.
Goodwin said that confusing a U with a 1, or a W with a 1, the two mix-ups in Flynn’s case, is hard to fathom. He said the Flynn incident, although extreme, has not caused BATA or its contractor Xerox to consider any policy or procedure changes.
“We clearly have procedures in place to deal with situations like this,” Goodwin said. “We and the customer service center need to follow our own rules.”
Flynn, for her part, has come to a conclusion. Sitting in her dining room sipping coffee last week, she said, “I love San Francisco. But if I never go back, I don’t care anymore. Nuh uh. It’s not worth the hassle.”