Sunday, August 26, 2007

"Face it, Big Brother is always watching. Pretty much everybody who drives outside their neighborhoods will eventually need a toll tag."

No escaping toll roads or the tags


By O.K. Carter
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2007

When the bill for not one but two instances of zipping through Austin-area toll roads without paying the fare showed up via snail mail, it was evident that I was going to have to ante up for one of those newfangled toll tags.

Once upon a time, toll-road fees were paid by either coming to a full stop to hand money to a collector or tossing "exact change only" into a mechanized collector basket. Those who got good at the latter developed a technique of rolling slowly, tossing the change, then gunning the engine.

Either method slows traffic considerably, which explains the enormous looping interchanges on Interstate 30 at Collins Street or Texas 360 in Arlington: I-30 between Dallas and Fort Worth was once a toll road, the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike. Its original interchanges were designed to hold giant lines of exiting and entering vehicles until drivers paid up.

But computers, sensor technology and credit accounts have already replaced or will replace toll collectors, human and mechanical. The crucial device is a windshield-mounted toll tag, sort of like a rolling bar code that sensors can read -- and bill -- without vehicles having to slow down.

Toll roads are proliferating all over the state. The dominant operator around here, for Tarrant, Dallas, Denton and Collin counties, is the North Texas Tollway Authority, formerly the Texas Turnpike Authority. That's the same organization that built the original Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike. Although there have been some issues involving private construction of toll roads, it now looks like the NTTA will be building and operating most of the toll roads within the four counties.

The NTTA is run by an appointed nine-member board. Eight are appointed by county commissioners from the four counties and one is appointed by the governor. Tarrant County representatives are Bill Meadows of Fort Worth and, as of Sept. 1, Victor Vandergriff of Arlington. The latter rates a footnote because it was Vandergriff's father, former Arlington Mayor Tom Vandergriff, who was most responsible for rescinding tolls from the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike after it was paid off.

But back to toll tags. Get one through NTTA and it's good at any toll road in Texas. Fill out a simple application and put money in an account, usually a minimum of $40. Provide credit card information, and more can be deducted when the balance drops below $10. A check will work too, though that's a bit more of a hassle. A toll tag is good for only one vehicle, but up to three can be issued from each account.

Vehicles without tags are photographed and billed based on license plate information, but the tab is considerably more expensive. There's no escape.

Though the process and the instructions seem simple enough -- mount the tag on the inside of the windshield under the rearview mirror -- not every motorist gets it.

"Some mount their tags under the rearview mirror as the instructions suggest, except they place it on the outside -- not a good idea," NTTA spokesman Sam Lopez said. "And for or some reason, some NTTA customers want to remove their toll tags from their windshield and wave them as they pass through our main lane and ramp plazas. Hand-waving the tag at precisely the right time and not interfering with the technology is almost impossible to master. Plus, I am told the human body acts much like a ground to this technology."

There's another slight snag involving toll tags. Since the technology records what cars went through at what time, they're sometimes used as court evidence. The NTTA has already been subpoenaed a couple of times in the past year, for example, in connection with divorce cases and what tags went through which sensors at what time. Who'd have thunk it?

Then again, the same information would be available for vehicles that go through the billing process without tags. Face it, Big Brother is always watching. Pretty much everybody who drives outside their neighborhoods will eventually need a toll tag. Might as well get it over with.

O.K. Carter's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. 817-548-5428

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