Thursday, January 18, 2007

"When you lose money on every sale, it’s tough to make it up in volume."

Highway to state insolvency

January 18, 2007

Bob Buckel
Azle News
Copyright 2007

Recently I drove on the new tollway – SH 121 – through Frisco, coming back from East Texas.

I must say, it was nice. Less traffic, no stoplights. For anyone who has driven through the Frisco/Plano area in the last few years, it was a huge improvement.

Apparently, as we drove, an unseen camera photographed our license plate and sent the data to a computer, which determined the vehicle’s ownership and generated a tollway bill that arrived last week. It was a bill for 60 cents.

Now, I appreciate the fact that I didn’t have to stop at a toll gate and toss coins into a basket, but I question whether even the State of Texas can afford to make money like this.

It cost Texas 28 cents – bulk rate – to mail this bill. I’m convinced that even my tiny part of the cost of installing and maintaining the cameras and computer system cost more than the remaining 32 cents that didn’t go to the Postal Service.

But add to that the cost of the invoice itself, the paper, the toner, the printer that kicked it out, the cost of folding it and sticking it in an envelope – along with a pre-addressed return envelope – and I’m sure Texas lost money on this transaction.

And as we all know, when you lose money on every sale, it’s tough to make it up in volume.

Shoot, it cost me 39 cents just to mail that 60-cent check, not to mention the time it took to write it and the cost of the check itself. This bill wasn’t worth sending or paying.

I thought about just tossing it, but then I read the warning at the bottom: “As the registered owner of the vehicle(s) on this invoice, you are responsible for the payment of the specified tolls and fees. Failure to pay the invoice within thirty (30) days may result in the issuance of a Notice of Toll Violation that includes administrative fees as authorized under Texas Transportation Code §228.055.”

Not wishing to be a scofflaw or to cost Texas any more than it had already spent, I put it with the others and paid it on time. They should get it this week.

That means someone in Austin has to open it, receipt it, credit it to my account and deposit it in the state’s account – which according to what I read is running a surplus of $14.3 billion for the upcoming biennium.

I know the governor is all fired up about using toll roads to pay for highway construction without having to wait on the feds to free up funds. I know traffic is bad and there’s a real need for innovative ways to get more, bigger, better roads built more quickly.

I’m for all that. I really am.

I applaud the technology, too, that helps drivers get on and off tollways without a thought, must less a visit with a surly toll-booth attendant.

It just seems like we could find a better way to collect it. How about putting it on our state income tax? Oh, that’s right – we don’t have one. How about the sales tax? No – who wants to stand in line at Wal-Mart while they find out who you are and how much you owe in highway tolls?

I guess they could just run you a tab until it gets to at least $5 or so – then it would be worth collecting. I’m sure folks who drive that road every day get a much larger bill, when they get one.

I’m just worried that if they send out enough invoices like mine, the state’s $14.3 billion suplus could be gone even before the Legislature has a chance to spend it. What a tragedy that would be.

Bob Buckel is publisher of the Azle News.

© 2007 Azle News: