Road Worrier: TriEx transponder problems take toll on drivers

April 30, 2012 

Triangle commuters who are learning to live with a new-technology toll road have been hit this spring by waves of perplexing messages from the N.C. Turnpike Authority.

First, the agency sent baffling bills to hundreds of its non-customers, telling them they owe nothing for driving on part of the 540 Outer Loop that is not under toll – yet.

Next, the Turnpike Authority tacked late fees and $25 civil penalties onto bills sent to other drivers using the Triangle Expressway, telling them they’d better pay promptly – even for toll bills of less than $1.

These mailings were marketing messages. Their intent was to sell transponders to drivers who had been identified by photos of their license plates. The agency basically told them: If you open an account and stick one of our N.C. Quick Pass transponders on your windshield, these hassles will go away.

Now, though, hundreds of Quick Pass customers are having their own hassles.

They have been charged a $5 fee because their transponders were not detected when they used TriEx, and their license plates were photographed instead. Maybe this is their fault, and maybe not.

The Turnpike Authority informed 900 customers last week that it had deducted the $5 from their accounts. The letter suggested that their transponders were not mounted correctly (in most cars, on the inside of the windshield, below the rear-view mirror mount).

Transponder users get a 35 percent discount on toll rates. The agency pushes transponders because it has to spend more money collecting tolls when it relies on a license-plate number.

“We’re trying to keep the toll down and trying to do the right thing,” Barry Mickle, operations director for the Turnpike Authority, told the Road Worrier. “We’re going to be very forgiving. We’re going to forgive all these [$5 fees].”

He said some drivers don’t stick the transponder on the windshield, and instead try to hold it up to the glass – usually too late – when they drive beneath the TriEx toll sensors. If drivers think their transponders are malfunctioning, they have to drive to the N.C. Quick Pass customer center in Morrisville so a turnpike worker can check it out.

For several drivers who made the trip Monday, the problem recalled those baffling zero-dollar invoices for driving on a toll-free leg of the 540 Outer Loop.

The agency collects tolls now only on the first 3.7-mile leg of TriEx, an extension of N.C. 147 south from Interstate 40 to the 540 Outer Loop. Toll collection will start in August on an existing leg of 540 (between N.C. 54 and N.C. 55), and on six new miles that will extend 540 south from N.C. 55 to U.S. 64 in Apex. The final leg of TriEx, reaching south to Holly Springs, opens in December.

A few frustrated drivers said they had been charged the $5 fee because they traveled the zero-toll section of 540 without their transponders. They don’t use N.C. 147, but they have transponders now and plan to install them later, when they drive on the new part of 540.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Frank Agius, 52, of Cary. “They charge zero dollars and zero cents toll, but they say, ‘Oh, you went through without your transponder.’ It’s not a toll road yet, right?”

Mike Fox, 47, of Moncure said a technician determined Monday that his $5 windshield transponder was not working properly, and gave him a new one. The technician initially refused Fox’s request to test the new one, after he stuck it on the windshield of his 1998 Lexus.

“They were not particularly helpful,” Fox said. “They didn’t want to come out and test it.”

But he persisted. He didn’t want to go through this hassle again.

Sure enough, the new transponder didn’t work, either.

“They said I had it mounted right, but there must be some sort of coating on my windshield that blocks it,” Fox said.

He was offered the more expensive option: buy a $25 transponder that attaches to his front license plate.

But Fox gave up. He closed his account with the Turnpike Authority.

Make contact: 919-829-4527 or bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com. On the Web at twitter.com/Road_Worrier/ and blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown/. Please include address and daytime phone.

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