Thursday, August 30, 2007

“I don't see any reason why they can’t pay like the rest of us.”

Some Wealthy & Powerful Drive On Tollway For Free

Aug 30, 2007

Bennett Cunningham Reporting
CBS 11 News (Dallas/Fort Worth)
Copyright 207

DALLAS-- Some very rich and powerful people are getting free TollTags – for life -- with virtually no limits on how many times they can ride for free.

A CBS 11 investigation found Dallas resident Jere Thompson with a free TollTag. He lives in a $1.4 million house, is CEO of a local electric company, and years ago served on the board of the North Texas Tollway Authority [N.T.T.A.]. According to records obtained by CBS 11, Thompson had more than 1200 transactions on the Dallas North Tollway in a recent 12 month period.

All of them were free.

Mr. Thompson told us he believes he's entitled to it for his years of service as a former NTTA board member.

The NTTA is a quasi-governmental agency and is funded with money from bonds and tollway revenue. But ask some people who don't get a free TollTag, like Dallas grandmother Margaret Diehl, and they’ll say, “I don't see any reason why they can’t pay like the rest of us.”

According to Clayton Howell of the NTTA, the reason Thompson doesn’t pay is because it's board policy that every former and current NTTA board member gets a free TollTag for life.

In addition, elected officials such as Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson and State Representatives Burt Solomons and Jim Jackson each get one too - but only until their terms are up.

The NTTA also issues a free TollTag to all of its roughly 800 employees.

Certain NTTA retirees also get a free TollTag for life.

If you have a free TollTag, there appears to be no set limit on the number of times you can use it. The NTTA says it monitors each tag to ensure there is no abuse, but would not define what constitutes abuse. Also, the NTTA does not audit the free TollTags to ensure each tag is being used only by the authorized user.

To get a free TollTag, you only need to fill out a form. One person makes the decision based on board policy.

In a recent 12 month period, the NTTA allowed one million free transactions. About 350,000 of those were for emergency vehicles. The rest were not.

Randy Johnson, who fought the tollway expansion, believes free TollTags for former board members and public officials is a “courtesy… you give them a free pass and they might help you out down the road.”

When CBS 11 analyzed tollway records, we found the three public officials who received toll tags--Congresswoman Johnson and State Representatives Solomons and Jackson--all worked on matters involving the tollway. Only Congresswoman Johnson called us back, saying, “I don’t have to tell you my business.”

We also found Dallas resident David Laney with a free TollTag. He has a home and rental property in Dallas worth more than $3 million. Laney is a former NTTA board member, former chair of the Texas Transportation Commission, and is currently the Chairman of the Board of Amtrak. Laney had 856 Tollway transactions in a recent 12 month period. When we asked if he deserves a free TollTag, he said “Yes.”

After persistent questions from CBS 11, the NTTA revoked former State Senator Robert Cain’s free TollTag. CBS 11 discovered the NTTA was violating its own policy by allowing Cain to have one. Cain left office in 2003, but remained on the list of people with free TollTags.

The NTTA also announced it is raising tolls, so those of us who do pay for tolls will soon pay more.

In June, the Harris County Toll Road Authority in Houston area took away the free TollTags it provided for employees, saying the policy no longer made sense.

Want to see the list of people who have a free TollTag? Click here to see it in .pdf format.

We asked the NTTA for a copy of its policy that governs free TollTags. Click here to download it for yourself as a .pdf file.

© 2007 CBS Stations Group of Texas:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE