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MTA To Motorists: We Know You’re Covering Your License Plates, So, Please, Uh, Don’t Do That

4:33 PM EDT on May 20, 2022

They know you’re out there and are politely telling you. Photo: MTA

Keep your license plate clear, pretty please.

The MTA announced on Friday that it was definitely paying attention to the rise in obscured and defaced license plates used at its bridges and tunnels and had a simple message: Please don't do that.

"Our message today is simple: If you cover your license plates, or intentionally use fraudulent plates, you will pay a price," said MTA Chairman and CEO Janno Lieber, reminding drivers of what they should long ago have known. "All of us here, the MTA, the NYPD, the State Police, the Sheriff's office, the Port Authority, are together are cracking down on this issue across the entire region. And we're doing it just in time for the start of the summer travel season."

Lieber also warned motorists that a law signed at the end of last year by Gov. Hochul had raised the fines for using an intentionally obscured license plate to $50 at minimum and $300 at maximum. That punishment is still less severe than the potential consequences for jumping a turnstile on the subway, which is classified as a "theft of services" crime in New York and therefore could subject violators to 15 days or a year in jail. Subway fare evasion as a theft of services charge also means there are more arrests for the charge, with 301 arrests under the charge during the first quarter of 2022 alone according to NYPD stats.

During the press conference, MTA Bridges and Tunnels President Daniel DeCrescenzo said that MTA and New York State Police had issued more than 36,000 summonses for obscured license plates and seized 6,200 vehicles of customers who didn't pay tolls since 2018. In addition, NYPD Deputy Inspector Conor Wynne, the executive officer at NYPD Highway Patrol, said that the department had arrested 225 people and given out 400 summonses in 2021 for using fraudulent license plates on city highways.

But despite the gaudy numbers thrown around by the TBTA and NYPD, more drivers than ever are getting away with license plate defacement, and Friday's announcement had no information about a new approach to stop them. Recent data uncovered by The City showed that the percentage of speed and red light camera tickets foiled by defaced license plates, or cars with temporary or no license plates at all, jumped from about 1 percent of all camera issued violations in March 2020 to 4 percent by December 2021. In total numbers terms, the outlet reported that it meant drivers got away with 1.5 million incidents of speeding or running a red light since March 2020.

It's also unclear if giving out 36,000 summonses for covered up license plates in five years is worth bragging about. In 2022 alone, there have been 3,439,213 toll by mail transactions at MTA bridges and tunnels through March, a huge number of license plates that have to be scanned. The agency did not say how many license plates it failed to scan at crossings since 2018, but according to data uncovered through a Freedom of Information request by journalist Steven Bodzin, cameras failed to pick up 118,464 license plates out of 9,286,640 toll transactions between March and September 2018 because they were either unintentionally or intentionally obscured.

The announcement comes in the context of Lieber's new emphasis on combatting fare evasion, which the transit boss said would be guided by the recommendations of a blue ribbon panel made up of various luminaries suggesting ideas beyond simply ticketing and arresting people for toll and fare evasion. According to Lieber, the MTA is on track to lose $50 million due to toll evasion this year, a number that will surely only grow if the state and the agency don't figure out how to deal with drivers using defaced and covered license plates by the time congestion pricing begins in 2023.

But this call is also coming from inside the house. The MTA has not been a stranger to its own employees working the toll scofflaw angle. In September last year, the MTA Inspector General put out a report identifying a bus division maintenance superintendent who skipped out on over $100,000 in tolls between 2011 and 2020 thanks to the use of a license plate cover and taking advantage of a loophole allowing drivers to swap out license plates without paying fines attached to old plates first. And in April, shortly after Lieber announced his agency's new focus on fare and toll evasion, an MTA subway conductor got busted attempting to not pay a toll at the Holland Tunnel by driving without a front license plate and using a mechanical device to cover his back license plate.

And MTA Chief Diversity Officer Michael Garner was just busted for using an expired MTA Police placard to park his Mercedes in front of MTA Headquarters in Manhattan.

The NYPD also has its own problems with illegally-covered license plates and dangerous drivers, as Streetsblog's March Parking Madness and S-Cop-Laws features have shown, precincts across the city are surrounded by police officers' personal cars that have defaced license plates or multiple speed and red light camera tickets attached to them

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