Sunday, July 06, 2008

Would Dallas residents prefer visitors remember their trip for the Tex-Mex and rock shows or the toll violations?

My topsy-turvy tangle with Texas toll roads

July 6, 2008

Ben Westhoff
The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

I visited Dallas, on business, for the first time in March. I enjoyed the local sights, shuttling around the northern suburbs and coming into the city for delicious Tex-Mex and an excellent rock show. The weather was great; everyone was kind.

But one aspect of my Texas odyssey left a bad taste in my mouth. Upon returning home to Hoboken, N.J., I received a notice in the mail from a Montana-based collection agency called Violation Management Services. It indicated that I had been billed for four 60-cent tolls in Texas , plus a $5 service fee for each. These $22.40 worth of charges had already been conveniently – make that inconveniently – charged to my credit card.

I had no idea what this was about. Though I remembered handing over dollars to some toll attendants, I certainly didn't recall driving through any tolls without paying.

Upon investigation, however, I realized this was exactly what I had done. It turns out that I couldn't have paid even if I'd wanted to. And the same confusing system ensnares other visitors all the time.

Let's back up a little. Upon arriving at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, I endured a long shuttle ride to the airport's rental car center. After getting over the fact that I was going to have to pay a huge percentage of my Advantage Rent A Car bill in taxes and fees (including a 15 percent sales tax, an 11.11 percent airport fee, a $2.50-per-day licensing fee, a $4-per-day airport concession fee and a 77-cents-per-day transportation fee) I quickly scanned my rental agreement and signed it.

What I apparently glossed over – and what other Dallas renters miss all the time – is a clause permitting the rental car company to turn over the collection of any unpaid tolls to a third-party agency. Why would I have paid the clause any mind? I'm not the type to break any traffic laws, much less bust through tolls like this was an episode of Dukes of Hazzard.

Little did I know that along State Highway 121, physical tolls have been replaced by electronic tolls. Instead of humans or machines collecting change, cameras snap pictures of your license plate, and you aren't given the option of stopping to pay.

It works like this: If you have a TxTag, Toll Tag or EZ Tag, the charge is deducted from your account. If you don't, a bill is sent to the address corresponding with the vehicle's license plate number. That means that if you're driving your own car, the fee (plus a surcharge) is sent to you at home. (If your kid is driving your car, it still gets sent to you at home, but that's another matter.)

But if you're driving a rental car, the bill is sent to the rental car company. Then – in the case of Advantage and at least a few others – the rental car company passes it along to a third-party collection agency, which adds a service charge and bills you. I had to pay $5 per "infraction," but some companies hit you a lot harder; renters with Thrifty and Dollar are charged $25 each.

I called Violation Management Services, Advantage's collection agency, to complain. The agent said that although plenty of others like me have made similar complaints, we have no recourse.

But I should look on the bright side, she said; until last fall, the company charged $40 for each infraction of this type. Only after being besieged with complaints did they lower their fee to $5. Why? "Because it's not fair to you to have to pay $40 for something you don't have any control over," she explained.

But $5 is fair?

The agent next referred me to TxTag, the company that handled the Highway 121 tollway when I visited. (As of April 4, responsibility was handed over to the North Texas Tollway Authority.)

She explained that, yes, other people had the same complaint. But she implied that we were all a bunch of whiny complainers, since there are clearly marked signs on 121 explaining that the road is a tollway.

But there's no indication that 121 is a special kind of toll road. It's beyond me how a non-local can be expected to know the difference between (A) toll roads where you can pay with change and (B) toll roads that send you a bill in the mail. (Though more common in other countries, electronic tolls that employ video cameras are still quite rare in the U.S.)

Sure, if I'd seen a sign saying, "Renters, get the heck off the road now, or you're going to get stuck with surcharges!" I would have exited immediately and hoped my GPS could come up with an alternate route. But as far as I could tell, Highway 121 drivers aren't given any explanation of what's going on until they get to the toll itself, at which time they're informed that they can use a tag or else "Pay By Mail."

This is where it begins to seem like a cruel hoax. Pay by mail? Huh? Where does one get the envelope?

I next asked the TxTag operator what course of action she would have suggested for me. Avoiding the road altogether? "Pretty much," she said. "In the case of 121, that's what we would recommend. Otherwise, there will be extra charges, and there will be extra fees."

An NTTA representative was more sympathetic. "If I was from another state, I might not [understand] something like that either," he said, suggesting that the next time I'm in town I use service roads instead of Highway 121.

Perhaps Advantage would have more helpful advice, given the number of renters they send out on the streets of North Texas every day?

But no. An agent said that the next time I was in town, I had another option. She gave me an 800 number to call shortly after going through an electronic toll, and the charge would be excused. (They even have a sign saying as much on the premises.)

But that number is for TxTag, which no longer administers the road. And an operator with the new administrator, NTTA, said she had no idea what the Advantage agent was talking about; they would not, in fact, excuse these charges.

This is a relatively small problem now; only Highway 121 and one Dallas North Tollway exit use the electronic tolls. But soon all NTTA tolls in the area will be electronic. Starting in August, the remaining cash booths will be ripped out.

No doubt, many drivers will find this more convenient. But, as the system is configured now, it is a potential nightmare for visitors. It's easy to image folks returning home with three- and four-figure surcharges "conveniently" added to their credit cards.

Aggravation for renters is not the only problem with electronic tolls. Economic studies – including one conducted by M.I.T. recently reported on in Scientific American – also show that toll prices rise more quickly when drivers aren't physically dispensing money.

But despite these problems, I do not advocate eliminating camera-aided tolls. They have a couple of important advantages. By making traffic flow faster, they are more convenient and gentler on the environment than old-fashioned tolls; long lines of idling cars burn more gas and produce more exhaust.

I do suggest, however, that y'all work a little harder to make life easier on out-of-town guests. One suggestion would be to maintain a single toll lane for renters or folks who want to pay with cash. Short of that:

• Rental car companies could charge the tolls directly to the renter's credit card themselves – without employing a collection agency, and without adding a surcharge. In fact, The Dallas Morning News just reported that Advantage is thinking of severing ties with Violation Management Services and trying a method in which renters pay $5 a day or so to cover their tolls.

• Renters could be given the opportunity to rent a tag apparatus from the rental car company.

• At the very least, renters should be made aware upon signing their agreements that they may encounter tolls they won't be able to pay. They should be told exactly where those tolls are and informed of alternate routes.

Every municipality has its quirks. Here's hoping that this one can be fixed, which would permit people like me to enjoy their time here even more. I'm sure Dallas residents would rather visitors remember their trip for the Tex-Mex and rock shows rather than the toll violations.

Ben Westhoff is a freelance writer; his e-mail address is ben.westhoff@

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