Monday, April 02, 2007

"Central Texas doesn't have anyone who's racked up a monstrous fine total...Yet."

Don't want to pay your tolls? Fine.

April 02, 2007

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

The Los Angeles Times last month had a cautionary tale for those of you who might be thinking of breezing through one of Central Texas' four new tollways without paying and then ignoring the follow-up collection efforts.

Some tollway scofflaws in the Los Angeles area have run up some truly impressive fines. The exemplars, according to the Times, were a Riverside couple that had $300 in unpaid tolls. Doesn't sound so bad, right?

Well, the fines associated with those unpaid tolls were $93,000. The couple ended up settling with the toll road agency for $21,000. Gulp.

Another Riverside woman (no coincidence about Riverside: a toll road runs through it) owes $47,850 in fines on $346 in tolls. And so on.

If you're thinking, "No way!" well, yes way, and it's the same here in Austin. Although the potential tab here would be smaller, smaller does not necessarily mean little.

In California, by state law the fine is limited (if that is the proper verb) to $500 per toll violation.

In Texas, the fine ceiling is a modest $100.

But let's say that once a month for a year you take the Loop 1 tollway without paying and then ignore the collection notices. Hey, it worked with those college parking tickets, right?

The toll on that road (assuming you don't continue on Texas 45 North and rack up further charges) is 75 cents. That would be $9 in unpaid tolls for that year. No sweat.

But the fines, if the Texas Department of Transportation's tollway folks take each violation to court, would total $1,200, plus any other court costs that the judge might levy.

You get the point.

The initial fine, by the way, is $5 a violation. You have to do a good deal of ignoring, or make yourself very hard to find, to get up to that $100 ceiling.

Because this is America and 2007, some of the California folks who didn't pay and didn't pay have assumed the mantle of victim and found themselves a lawyer. The Times said they are claiming in a lawsuit that the charges amount to unconstitutionally excessive fines.

Maybe so, particularly in the case of that Riverside couple, who had an electronic toll tag that they say malfunctioned.

Somehow, they allege, they managed to get to $300 in unpaid tolls without ever hearing about it from the toll road agency.

One has to wonder whether the Transportation Department here might be able to consolidate unpaid tolls from a particular violator into one case, reducing its collections cost per violation. But what if those ignored tolls happen sporadically over a long period of time? And the toll agencies have to be consistent, even if some judge them to be consistently harsh.

I wouldn't count on these penalties going away or going down. If you can't pay the fine, don't cross the line.

By the way, given that tolls began less than three months ago on three of the local toll roads, and haven't even started yet on the fourth, Central Texas doesn't have anyone who's racked up a monstrous fine total.


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