More than 51,000 Tennesseans received collection notices after vacationing in FL


More than 51,000 Tennesseans received collection notices after vacations to Florida in just the past two years, a Channel 4 I-Team investigation has uncovered.

The collection notices come as a result of Tennesseans driving on that state’s new system of collecting tolls.

An I-Team investigation found Tennesseans confused about toll bills they’ve received in the mail and questioning why they’re getting collection notices before those first bills are even due.

The -Team started investigating, knowing just how many Middle Tennesseans drive to Florida, especially Destin, for vacations.

“When you’re in Florida, it’s basically Nashville in Florida,” said Alan Douglas, who lives in Florida and vacations in Destin.

Murfreesboro realtor Justin Holder also routinely vacations in Destin and documented for the I-Team what he says is how the state of Florida is capitalizing on the confusion of Tennessee drivers.

“I think it’s an excellent, excellent, brilliant scam,” Holder said.

During Holder’s summer vacation, he took a picture as he and family were waiting in the line before a toll booth to get onto the Mid-Bay Bridge leading into Destin.

The photograph shows him in the lane to pay with cash to get through the toll.

Before he reached the toll, he saw sign after sign on State Route 293 that read, “Toll-by-Plate” and “We Will Bill you Toll-by-Plate.”

Toll-by-plate is a system where, if you don’t have what’s called a SunPass, cameras will take a picture of your license plate and bill you for the toll.

This system of tolls-by-plate is used all over the state of Florida, from Orlando to Destin.

But when Holder got to the toll booth before the bridge, he opted to get into the lane to pay in cash.

“We obviously paid, but still received a bill after,” Holder said.

When Holder got home, he received a bill in the mail from the toll-by-plate camera system.

“They wouldn’t have lifted the gate if we hadn’t paid,” Holder said.

To find out if it was just a fluke, the I-Team asked Holder to mount a GoPro camera on the hood of his family’s car on their trip to Florida in October.

The video shows Holder drive through the cash lane, stop and pay and get a receipt.

But when Holder got back, he again got another toll-by-plate bill from the state of Florida.

After reviewing the video, the I-Team uncovered that confusion about signage may be to blame.

Several miles before drivers reach the tolls leading onto the bridge, you have to drive under a row of cameras.

There are no signs that say it, but this row of cameras is actually the first toll.

Holder drove underneath it and, without realizing it, had his license plate photographed to receive a toll bill.

But just five minutes down the road, drivers have to pay another toll before getting onto the bridge.

The signs leading up to the tolls do not explain that the cameras is one toll, and an actual toll booth is also approaching. Here’s a map that explains the route and the tolls.

Channel 4 asked Van Fuller, the executive director of the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority, about how the signage could confuse Tennesseans unfamiliar with the toll by plate system.

“We believe it’s clear. However, with this feedback as well as from other sources, we will continue to coordinate with the (Florida) Department of Transportation with to improve signage and our system,” Fuller said.

But the Channel 4 I-Team found this isn’t even the biggest problem.

Like Holder, Douglas was heading down State Route 293 south to Destin and drove under the same cameras. When he returned home, he received a toll bill for $4.

But just nine days after he received that bill, he got a notice from a collection agency for “a toll-by-plate violation.”

The bill read that his account had been reported past due, but he got the first toll-by-plate bill on Aug. 17, and it wasn’t even due for another two and a half weeks.

“At this point, I’m getting ticked. Because I spent tons of money down there, and now they’re going to send me a collection notice?” Douglas said.

Records obtained by the I-Team from the state of Florida show Douglas isn’t alone.

In the past two years, 201,541 Tennesseans received toll-by-plate bills, according to the Florida Department of Transportation.

Florida’s records show of that number, 51,133 bills sent to Tennesseans were also forwarded to collection agencies. It means one-fourth of all the Tennesseans who got the toll-by-plate bills had those bills forwarded onto collection agencies.

It is unknown how many of those Tennesseans ended up getting the notices from the collection agencies before their toll-by-plate bills were even due.

“Why do you even want to spend money in a state if they’re going to invoice you?” Douglas said.

Sonyha Rodriguez-Miller, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Transportation, denied the I-Team’s request for an interview but sent a statement reading in part, “In this case, Mr. Douglas was indeed sent the collection notice prematurely by mistake. We are sorry for this inconvenience.”

Both Holder and Douglas said since Tennesseans are spending so much money in Florida, that the state needs to rethink how it’s charging its vacationers.

“Respect the people who are coming across the gate,” Holder said.

One option is to buy what’s called a SunPass, that’s where you pre-pay and the cameras seek out a sticker on your car. The amount of the toll is then deducted from your account. You can learn about the system here.

But since so many Tennesseans only travel to Destin once a year, you may still be a bit confused how the toll-by-plate works. The I-Team walks you through it here:

The I-Team will continue to press Florida for answers as to why so many Tennesseans are getting their bills sent to collection agencies.

Copyright 2015 WSMV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

Source: NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) Channel 4

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