Target 12 on WPRI.com

Newport Bridge toll violators have their day in court

Target 12

CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — Magistrate Judge William Noonan asked how much money in unpaid tolls the driver standing before him has racked up.

“It’s a lot,” Harold Randall replied.

“It’s obviously a situation more serious than you led me to believe,” Noonan said.

Randall was one of 13 drivers summonsed to the R.I. Traffic Tribunal on Thursday for failing to pay the toll at the Newport Pell Bridge at least 100 times. By law, the R.I. Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA) can put a freeze on license renewals and motor vehicle registrations after 20 free trips and take a driver to court after 100 unpaid tolls.

“Last month the average amount owed for people that went to Traffic Tribunal is $15,000,” RITBA executive director Buddy Croft said. “That’s a lot of ignored transits across this bridge.”

Two drivers were no-shows, prompting Noonan to suspend their driver’s licenses and tack on a $500 fine. But the majority — like Randall — had worked out a payment plan with RITBA and were making monthly payments to pay down their debt.

Among them was Kevin Griffin, 49, of Providence. In 2018 he blew through the tolls 126 times without paying, amassing a bill of more than $10,000. Fees and fines accounted for the vast majority of the unpaid tab because he ignored the notices.

“The penalty for that was I had a lock on my license, and I had a block on my registration.” Griffin said. “It was tough.”

Griffin admitted he knew he was driving through the gateless gantry without paying, but said he had fallen on hard times. When the state put a freeze on his license renewal he went to RITBA to see what he could do, and they worked out a deal. On Wednesday, Griffin walked into court with $1,200 and put his toll troubles in the rearview mirror.

“I went in there I spoke to them and what they did for me is they gave me the original price,” Girffin said. “I think they were really fair about it and so we were able to work something out.” 

“I’m happy today,” he added. “I’m happy.”

As Target 12 first reported, drivers going over the Newport Pell Bridge have racked up $9.6 million in unpaid tolls plus fees and fines over the last six years, yet RITBA is often powerless to go after them because of the minimum number of free trips required by law to trigger action.

The vast majority of the $9.6 million — 85% — represents fees and fines, meaning only about $1.4 million is actual unpaid tolls.

RITBA has asked lawmakers to change the threshold that triggers action by the DMV from 20 free trips to 10, and the trigger for taking a driver to court from 100 unpaid tolls to 20.

If the bill passes, the Traffic Tribunal could see a spike in toll offenders, but Judge Noonan said he is confident the court could shoulder the extra caseload.

“Based on what I’ve seen, the Turnpike and Bridge Authority could handle it,” Noonan said. “They’re very efficient.”

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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