On February 14 of this year, a camera on the Route 520 toll bridge from Bellevue across Lake Washington to Seattle took a picture at 7:24 p.m. of a license plate on a vehicle heading west. Washington State Department of Transportation computers decided the plate was registered to me. A $3.95 charge was deducted from a previously unused Good To Go! toll account I set up three years ago upon becoming New To Seattle, and funded with $30 of my hard-earned money.
There was one small problem: None of our cars has gone across the 520 bridge since tolls were put back on the span in December 2011. Not once. And certainly no early one-way trip back from romantic Bellevue on the evening of Valentine’s Day 2014.
I only noticed the charge recently when I took an online look at my Good To Go! account in light of several withering Seattle Times columns by Danny Westneat (read them here and here). He suggested it was amateur night at WSDOT when it comes to running the plate-recognition, billing and due-process operations designed, in the land of the $15-an-hour minimum wage, to eliminate human toll collectors. Nothing I have learned disputes any of his findings.
But the much-maligned WSDOT (under attack on land, water and even lower) deserves credit where due. After I filed an online protest and asked for proof–specifically, the charged-to-me license plate photograph undoubtedly stored in a giant computer somewhere–the agency four days later sent me an email confessing error. “We reviewed the image and it does appear to be a misread plate,” said the note, signed by one “Calen,” no stated last name, whose title is “Correspondence Supervisor Good To Go! Customer Service Center” (I love that exclamation point).
The $3.95 taken out of my Good To Go! account was restored, bringing it back to the big 3-0 (but available for interest-free use by Washington State). “Should you have any questions or concerns, please contact us at your earliest convenience,” Calen wrote.
Well, as it turns out, I did have some questions and concerns, which I expressed an hour later in a formal request with the Good To Go! part of WSDOT. “I would like to review for myself a copy of the image that was misread by your agency,” I wrote. “Please consider this a request under the Washington Public Records Act, s. 42-56 et seq.” Sending the image to me electronically attached to an email would be fine, I added.
The many problems with this response include these: the Washington State Public Records Act (1) explicitly guarantees the right of a requester (like me) to order paper copies of any public record, as opposed to just being allow to look at them, (2) requires the agency (WSDOT/Good To Go!) to make and send those copies upon payment of a modest fee (a maximum of 15 cents a page), (3) says no request can be denied without specifically stating the statutory grounds, which wasn’t done here, and (4) has no requirement that I must show up in person to exercise my statutory privilege.
Well, I haven’t filed hundreds of public-records requests around the country over the years (click here for a recent Seattle example, and here, here, here and here for some others) without learning a few things. So soon thereafter, I fired back at Sareya:
I’ll keep you posted on developments in this brewing public disclosure battle. After all, there are some interesting issues here. Will the correct driver now be charged for my crossing of the world’s longest floating bridge? How accurate is the camera recognition system, anyway?
And maybe the most important question of all: Why does everyone interfacing with the public at Good To Go! seem to use just one name? Maybe they’re all from Afghanistan. But given the problems with the system, I think I know the reason for this mononymous behavior: little love lost, on Valentine’s or any other day of the year! (exclamation point added deliberately by me).