As New York City prepares to impose congestion fees in Manhattan, police are writing about a 75% increase in “ghost car” tickets — vehicles with covered, defaced or false license plates, according to data shared with Gothamist.
The proposed toll for vehicles entering Manhattan below 60th Street will read their license plates and charge passenger cars $15 and large trucks up to $36 per trip.
Experts warn that without stricter enforcement, the program could lead to an increase in the number of vehicles that illegally evade tolls and speed cameras using false or mutilated license plates. This new wave of fare evasion could cripple the program’s long-awaited and much-needed profits, undermine its traffic-busting goals, and ultimately raise prices for those who pay.
“If some people don’t pay, that means people who are abiding by the law will end up having to pay more,” said Elizabeth Adams, executive deputy director for public affairs at the public transit advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. Congestion pricing is legally required to bring in $1 billion annually in tolls; Adams stresses that if not enough people pay the $15 fee, the price could rise to meet that goal.
Sam Schwartz, a transportation consultant who previously served as New York City’s traffic commissioner, predicts that without strict enforcement, as many as 1 in 5 drivers could have their plates blocked once the new fees are implemented.
Fake plates are cheap and easy to obtain, Schwartz said. He said he was able to get a fake Mississippi license plate on eBay for just $15 — “just one trip fee” in a passenger car under congestion rates.
“I wouldn’t use it, but I did it just to show how easy it is,” he said. “If I was a bad guy, I would put it on my car and drive and not worry about cameras being able to track me.”
Other drivers used plastic shields, reflective paint, surgical masks, and even… Leaves To hide their marks from cameras.
The expected rise in ghost plates could cost the MTA hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, according to Schwartz. Fare evaders could also undermine the program’s ability to overcome the problem it’s supposed to help solve: reducing the number of vehicles on Manhattan’s streets.
“If we give the green light to some people to cheat on the program, we will not have a fair system for funding our public transportation and we will not reduce congestion, which the climate crisis and our crowded streets so desperately require right now.” Adams said.
At MTA Board of Directors Meeting Last week, President Jano Libre said the MTA and other agencies would step up efforts to make cheaters pay what they owe.
“We will pursue the matter seriously and make sure that people do not get away with it, because of everyone’s credibility [congestion pricing] He said the efforts are at stake.
Evade the camera with few consequences
In 2022, the Adams administration announced a crackdown targeting scoffers, who bend, cover or switch their license plates to avoid tolls and tickets. Since then, police have written hundreds of thousands of tickets, issued thousands of summonses, and towed a few thousand vehicles. The city too Forbidden Selling camera-obscuring license plate covers within city limits, including through online retailers such as Amazon. New York commuters who spot the plates in public places — some even recovering the plates themselves — can now call out errant drivers using a designated spot. 311 Complaint Category.
But some drivers are still far from the cameras. About 5% of cars that ran red lights or speed cameras this year couldn’t be traced because of fake, missing or illegible plates, according to data from the Department of Transportation — up from just 1% of cars in 2019. And the MTA’s cameras could not collect Tolls from about 6% of bridge and tunnel drivers, according to a recent report from the agency’s Bridges and Tunnels Commission. Data analysis by Streetsblog is found Observations of deformed plates increased 200-fold between 2017 and 2022.
A new set of congestion charges expected to take effect next spring could lead to a new wave of toll evaders, transportation experts say.
Data shared by the city’s police department indicates that the city is ramping up some forms of license plate enforcement ahead of the congestion pricing start date. So far this year, officers have written more than 12,000 moving tickets for covered plates — three-quarters more summonses than this time last year, according to data shared with Gothamist. Parking tickets for blocked plates remained steady over the same time frame at about 230,000, and arrests for temporary signs fell by about a quarter. All three metrics have risen significantly compared to their pre-pandemic values.
New Yorkers are also stepping in to report hackers who deface their plates via the number 311. So far this year, the NYPD has received more than 1,500 complaints a month on average from members of the public, up from about 1,000 complaints a month in mid-2018. 2022 When it was filed This category for the first time.
But a closer look at both sets of data shows that many drivers who evade the camera are not deterred, and in some cases get away with it. Of the more than 300,000 parking tickets written for license plate violations between July 2022 and June 2023, about a third were awarded to drivers who racked up at least five tickets in that year alone. About two dozen drivers had more than 100 tickets each. About 60% of the 311 complaints did not lead to any type of correction, according to the city’s service requests database.
Adam White, an attorney, cyclist and former license plate guard, says that without stricter enforcement to set an example, even drivers with intact license plates could start covering their plates as soon as toll fees start rolling in. White himself was arrested for revealing an obscured license plate. It is later File a lawsuit against The city was charged with committing criminal acts.
“If enough people are doing it without consequences, and people in the neighborhood see them, then [they] “You start thinking, ‘Wait a minute, I’m the only one paying taxes,'” White said. “I’m the only one who got hit by this.” Why do I have to be the idiot holding the bag?
Experts and advocates interviewed by Gothamist had different ideas about how the city can stem the tide of toll evaders. Schwartz, the former traffic commissioner, said police should hand over enforcement of traffic laws to the Department of Transportation, which he said is better equipped to take down the law against violators, including cops caught with covered plates. Lawyer White wants police to take advantage of powers that allow them to separate license plate pirates from their vehicles, including boots and impounds. He also wants to see the federal government step in and ban paper plates, which are a popular choice for toll evaders.
Adams and others are pushing for laws to make it harder to get fake license plates out of state. A bill introduced by the City Council last spring would ban the sale and distribution of counterfeit tags.
Another bill announced last week would raise the maximum penalty for an obscured or defaced plate to $1,000. Currently, the fine for a vehicle parked with an obstructed license plate is $65. According to To the New York City Department of Finance.
“I mean, this is like two trips across the Verrazano Bridge,” said Councilman Robert Holden, a sponsor of the new bill and a staunch foe of license plate exchange violators. He said penalties for driving with an unclear license plate should outweigh the cost savings.
“Where there is a will, there is a way,” he said. “If someone can save a lot of money by blacking out their panels, they will do it. And they will do it in a very creative way, whether it’s through technology or covers or foliage.”
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