For Whom the Toll Bells

The North Texas Tollway Authority exacts a stiff price for those who drive willy-nilly on its highways

Coffelt explained to me that the absence of cash-taking booths at the main entrance to the Dallas North Tollway is just kind of an exception. The Dallas North Tollway is definitely a must-pay-cash toll road except when you get on it, when it is a can't-pay-cash toll road. But that doesn't last; later down the road you have to pay cash.

Maybe you better take notes.

If you enter at Wycliff and you don't have a TollTag and you don't pay cash because you can't pay cash, you will be billed only for the amount of your tolls. Maybe.

The only sure way to avoid getting one of the tollway authority's trick bills for several hundred dollars is to have a lawyer ride with you.
The only sure way to avoid getting one of the tollway authority's trick bills for several hundred dollars is to have a lawyer ride with you.

If you keep driving, and maybe you think this is a road where you don't have to pay cash because that's what it was when you got on, but you pass another toll plaza farther north at say, Keller-Springs Road where you can pay cash, but you decide not to pay cash because you have been lulled into thinking you don't have to pay cash, this is what you must do next:

Pull over to the shoulder immediately.

Exit the vehicle.

Put your head between your legs.

Kiss your ass good-bye.

You have just become a son-of-a-bitch, toll-jumping, miscreant fool, and you are about to feel the full weight of the law on your no-good, crime-prone head.

Well, you might think, maybe I make that mistake one time. They let me know. I take my medicine, pay my toll plus my 25 bucks. Man, I'll sure never make that mistake again!

Not so fast, Kemo Sabe. In Johns' case, for example, he had no idea he was doing anything wrong until he was on the tab for $337. He told me he certainly would have figured out a smarter way to behave had he known what was going on at the get-go.

"I get on George Bush, which I assume is the same deal as 121, and obviously if I had known this—a $25 administrative fee per tollbooth—I mean, good grief, I would have made other arrangements."

I asked Coffelt why people don't get billed or notified right away, the first time they hit the buzzer, so that they won't keep making the same mistake. She said the NTTA wants to spare people the annoyance of being billed every time they have a two-bit toll.

"We're not sending out a 40-cent bill, and then you end up paying 42 cents for postage, because what person would want to write a check for 40 cents. So we save up a couple of transactions."

I said I understood about the normal tolls, but did the agency try to let people know the first time they made a mistake and racked up a $25 administrative fee? She said no. They save up those too.

"We will save it, and you may get two, three transactions with $25 fees on it, so yes, we do save those."

Problem. Johns, indeed, had only four toll road trips on his first bill. But those trips took place over an 18-month period. And because the system hits him with a separate $25 fee every time he ticks past another camera, his total administrative fees for those four trips came to $325. The first trip alone, a year and a half ago, cost him $100 in fees.

They couldn't have given him a heads-up a year and a half ago?

I asked Coffelt how much the agency collects in administrative fees and fines. Apparently that is a really tough question to answer. She said she would have to get back to me.

I did not hear from her before the deadline for this story, but I did the best I could on my own. I looked online at the NTTA's annual financial statements.

According to the NTTA's 2007 financial statement, it collected $4.4 million that year in administrative fees "for collection of tolls from toll violators [the bastards]," representing 2.1 percent of its total income.

Note to reader: I added "the bastards."

What I found more interesting was this: Between 2001 and 2007, the agency's toll revenues grew by 89 percent. In that same period, its revenues for "administrative fees, parking transaction fees, statement fees and miscellaneous charges" grew by 356 percent.

So I guess if you are the bright person at the NTTA in charge of squeezing money out of people with non-toll fees, right about now you've got a big gold star over your name.

While they're at it, the NTTA should set up a special tollbooth just for people who get really behind on their administrative fees. Deadbeats would be required to park their cars and come inside.

There should be some old pinball machines in there and a couple guys in zoot suits smoking cigars, one of them cleaning his fingernails with a switchblade. They might say something like, "Pal, you gotta lotta administrative fees youse owes us. We'd like to settle this peaceful."

They might as well be honest about the type of operation they're running.

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