For Whom the Toll Bells

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.

Johns drives to the Dallas side of the metropolitan area for his son's baseball games. He used to drive on the State Highway 121 tollway between Coppell and Lewisville.

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.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze