Monday, December 04, 2006

Free TollTags for officials cost North Texas Tollway Authority $1.3 million a year

Dead or alive: Free TollTags for officials

December 4, 2006

Copyright 2006

A TollTag clearly makes driving on the North Dallas Tollway and other pay-as-you-go highways in Texas cheaper and easier.

But for at least 3,000 people and dozens of government agencies, it's more inexpensive than you might think.

It's free.

Allan Rutter, the director of the North Texas Tollway Authority, says it's perfectly legal to give government agencies and selected individuals free toll tags. "I don't see that as compensation," he said. "It's part of doing my job."

In part, it's a way of thanking individuals for helping the NTTA grow.

Last July, the agency tightened its rules on who gets free TollTags. The policy is now somewhat more restrictive and usage will be monitored more closely.

But when News 8 reviewed recent records, we discovered active toll tags for former Dallas County Commissioner Chris Semos and NTTA lawyer Charles Purnell—both of whom are dead.

Several other TollTags are being used by politicians and ex-NTTA board members who have been out of office—in some cases, for more than ten years:

• Retired Judge Robert Cole

• Former state senators David Cain and John Leedom

• Former NTTA board members Howard Riley and David Laney

"There are people who are no longer qualified to get these tags under our new policy, and we are going to be contacting them, informing them, and asking them to convert to paying customers," Rutter said. "To the extent that hadn't been done before, that's a mistake."

The Tollway Authority says the complimentary TollTags cost the agency about $1.3 million a year. That adds up to more than $10 million in lost revenue since the agency was established more than eight years ago.

Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price says the NTTA's new policies don't go nearly far enough. "It's a million-and-a half here, and a million-and-a-half there, and after a while, we're talking about real money," Price said.

The free TollTags are a fringe benefit to 750 current and former employees. "It's only for the employee himself," Rutter explained. "That's one of the things we use to attract and retain people."

"I just find it interesting you can build that kind of subsidy into individual's pay," Price said.

The agency says it is not changing its policy for current and retired employees, but employees' use of the perk will be monitored more closely.

"No one should have a TollTag that's probably not paying for it," Price said. "You can't just give it away."


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