Emergency responders get toll-violation tickets | News | Almanac Online |


Emergency responders get toll-violation tickets


Local police and fire service agencies never expected a potted begonia and thank-you card when their crews rushed to the Dumbarton Bridge to handle the car crash, or the man threatening to jump over the rail, or the thug speeding across in a stolen car.

But more than a year ago, stunned administrators in both the Menlo Park Fire Protection District and the Menlo Park Police Department started receiving something they expected even less: citations for driving through the toll plaza without paying while on an emergency call.

The citations were the result of the bridge authority's conversion in August 2007 to the computerized FasTrak fee-collection system, which uses cameras to monitor the FasTrak lanes emergency vehicles use when responding to calls. In putting the system in place, decision-makers neglected to consider the impact on emergency responders, according to Chief Harold Schapelhouman of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District.

"Computers replaced people, and common sense that had been in place for 81 years went out the window," he said in a written statement.

Chief Schapelhouman delivered his message recently in Sacramento to the state Assembly's Transportation Committee, which was considering a bill by Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, R-Riverside, to exempt emergency vehicles from paying bridge tolls anywhere in the state when making emergency calls. (The bill cleared that committee.)

Since the citations began coming in last year, both fire district and police department staffs have spent many hours and endured numerous head-aches trying to get the tickets dismissed, officials from both agencies say.

"It's time-consuming and, quite honestly, very frustrating and ridiculous," Chief Schapelhouman said in an interview.

The bill now making its way through the process in Sacramento -- AB 254 -- cleared the Appropriations Committee with no opposition last week, and is set to go to the Assembly floor within a week or two, said an aide to Assemblyman Jeffries.

Chief Schapelhouman said he's been asked to testify again in June when the Senate hears the bill. In his testimony before the Assembly, he noted that the fire agency provides emergency response services on the Dumbarton at no charge to Caltrans, which oversees the bridge.

At this point, ACS Government Solutions, the private company that operates FasTrak, requires the public agencies receiving citations to submit evidence that their vehicles were responding to an emergency, he said. "I believe that the burden has clearly been inappropriately placed" on the emergency services agencies, he said in his testimony before the Assembly.

"Please stop this madness and bring common sense back to a system that, statewide, should be offering an exemption to emergency responders for legitimate emergencies on tolls and bridges," he concluded.

Cmdr. Lacy Burt of the Menlo Park Police Department said she and her colleagues are "definitely on board with the effort" to exempt emergency responders from tolls.

Too often, she noted, staff has spent too much precious time trying to reach a person with authority at ACS Government Solutions, and once they did, have been told that the tickets would be forgiven -- only to have the "overdue bills" sent to collections.

Tickets are $29 each; when they're not paid, the penalty boosts the cost to $74, she said. "It's rather frustrating," she said. "We've sent numerous (messages) to them, saying, 'Hey, can we come to the table and work out some sort of deal here? This is public safety. ... Can we meet in the middle?'"

Cmdr. Burt noted that Menlo Park police officers don't patrol the bridge, and respond to the span "only when there's an emergency."

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Like this comment
Posted by VetDoc
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on May 21, 2009 at 8:45 am

This is crazy! The Toll people should be charged with hindering the timely response of our police and firefighters. I would like to know if the toll companies are fighting this proposed fix in Sacramento. If so, they should be fired!!!

Like this comment
Posted by Ken
a resident of Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on May 21, 2009 at 10:18 am

Another example of why it's a bad idea to allow a for-profit entity to take over a function of a government service.

Like this comment
Posted by Confused
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on May 21, 2009 at 3:34 pm

So let me get this straight...emergency service vehicles, which are paid for by taxes, are getting tickets from the bridge, which is paid for by taxes...how are they not exempt? Seriously, one government agency is citing and fining another for bridge tolls? Are they that desperate for money? This state is a mess.

Like this comment
Posted by Ken
a resident of Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on May 21, 2009 at 3:59 pm

Confused, I strongly suspect that it's FasTrak, a for-profit entity running the toll collection operation, that is profiting from the fines. And that's what I meant when I said it's a bad idea to involve for-profit companies to provide basic public services, like keeping public roadways functional, accessible and safe.

Like this comment
Posted by Ken
a resident of Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on May 21, 2009 at 4:08 pm

For the sake of clarity, FasTrak is the for-profit contractor -- hired by the state/Caltrans/the taxpayer -- that runs the toll-gathering operation of the state's bridges. The rest of the highway operation is overseen by Caltrans. I think these emergency agencies have to do battle with the contractor directly to try to get their fines dropped. Ridiculous.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 21, 2009 at 5:15 pm

The irony is that the Fire and Police are providing emergency services to CalTrans for FREE and then CalTrans is charging the Fire and Police for the 'privilege' of providing that service.

Like this comment
Posted by oldtimer
a resident of another community
on May 21, 2009 at 8:14 pm

Palo Alto simply pays the citation fine.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 21, 2009 at 8:51 pm

And why should the citizen's of Palo Alto BOTH provide free emergency services to CalTrans AND pay for the privilege of doing so?

The City of Palo Alto may well pay the citations but I suspect that the citizens of Palo Alto would be appalled by that decision.

Like this comment
Posted by Suzie
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on May 22, 2009 at 7:17 am

As an interim solution to toll tickets for emergency response perhaps the fire district and police district could add fast track to their vehicles and send in the emergency reports lieu of payment. Do we really need another State law amendment to fix this? From reading the article it appears for non-emergency trips, toll is required.

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