By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Certain things you can do that might turn out very badly for you. Borrowing money from the Mafia, for example. Posing naked for a photographer who is a stranger.
But who worries about driving down a toll road? I can tell you who should: You!
Over the last several years I have received numerous phone calls, letters and e-mails from people complaining that they have been hit with huge, totally unexpected bills for unpaid tolls and associated fines.
For a long time, I brushed these aside. I thought, "Well, you know, people should pay their tolls."
But most of the people calling me don't sound like folks who regularly skip on restaurant tabs or jump over turnstiles. I made up my mind a few weeks ago that the next time I got one of these complaints, I would stop whatever I was doing and take a look. I didn't have long to wait. On a Monday morning I found a phone message from Rick Johns, a probation officer in Tarrant County.
Johns had just received a bill from the North Texas Tollway Authority for $337 for four trips on the President George Bush Turnpike, which runs from near the D/FW Airport east to the vicinity of Rowlett on Lake Ray Hubbard.
For the first trip, which he made a year and a half ago, he was charged at a rate of $3 in tolls and $100 in "administrative fees." The second trip, made about a year ago, was billed at $3 in tolls and $75 in fees. Another cruise down the PGBT the following day cost him $2 in tolls and 50 bucks in fees.
The most recent trip, his most expensive, was made last May and billed at $4 in tolls and $100 in fees.
According to Johns, this statement was the first notification of any kind telling him he owed the NTTA money. His claim—that this was a first notice—was backed up by the notice itself, of which he gave me a copy, and by the NTTA's own description of its billing practices when I called them. The NTTA didn't comment on Johns' case specifically.
Before I even venture into the question of the billing practices, let's you and I see if we can figure out how a normal, law-abiding citizen—a parole officer in this case—gets behind the eight-ball to the tune of three C-notes in unpaid toll road fees.
There are no tollbooths on 121. Therefore it is not possible to pay your tolls as you go. Cameras along the way take pictures of you as you pass. If you do not have an electronic TollTag on your windshield connected to a credit card, the NTTA bills you by mail for the amount of your tolls.
Johns didn't have a Dallas-area TollTag. Didn't want one. Was happy to pay by mail. Did so. He even thought mistakenly that he was paying a little extra and didn't mind.
"I was under the impression that the toll may have been even 25 cents higher per toll by not stopping and paying, and I didn't have a problem with that."
He says he paid those bills when he got them. Never had a problem. So where did he do wrong? He started driving on another NTTA toll road—the President George Bush Turnpike. There, the rules are different.
As explained to me by NTTA spokeswoman Sherita Coffelt, the difference is that the PGBT does have tollbooths, while the 121 tollway does not. Coffelt said that wherever there are tollbooths, a motorist who does not have a TollTag must stop and pay cash. Where there are no tollbooths, a motorist does not have to stop and pay cash.
When a motorist is not required to stop and pay cash, he will be billed for the amount of his toll only. When he is required to stop and pay cash but does not, he's a toll jumper. He will be billed for the amount of his toll plus a $25 penalty called an "administrative fee."
No signs along the road warn motorists of this difference. Coffelt told me it's the motorist's obligation to know the rules.
Each skipped toll station incurs a new $25 administrative fee. On his jaunt down the PGBT last May, Johns passed by four toll stations, each one of which took a picture of his license plate and billed him for a $1 toll plus a $25 administrative fee. So four times $26 amounted to a bill for $104, a tab he racked up for 33 minutes of driving.
But wait. We're not done with the different rules on how to pay your toll. There is a third rule. On the Dallas North Tollway, you can pay cash, so if you don't have a TollTag you must pay cash, and if you don't pay cash you'll be billed for the tolls plus the $25 fees. But you can't pay cash.
The Dallas North Tollway is a road where you can pay cash, so you have to pay cash, but if you enter the Dallas North Tollway at the main plaza at Wycliff close to downtown, you will notice that you can't pay cash. There are no tollbooths at Wycliff.
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.
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.