Road Worrier

Road Worrier: TriEx drivers charged more for late fees than for tolls

DOT penalties prod users to pay promptly

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comOctober 8, 2012 

  • TriEx by the dollars Tolls through September 48 percent paid by N.C. Quick Pass transponder users: $707,635 52 percent billed to bill-by-mail drivers, based on their license tags: $771,252 ($421,172 paid so far) Prompt collection rate: 72 percent of tolls are paid after first bill (no late fee) Late fees ($6 per month) Billed: $766,032 Collected: $259,703 Civil penalties ($25, charged after two months) Billed: $656,638 Collected: $220,888 (paid to Wake County schools) States where owners receive toll bills now North Carolina (83 percent share of all bill-by-mail tolls) Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Texas and California (combined 12 percent share) States where owners are not identified and billed – yet The other 44 (5 percent share) Source: NCDOT

Triangle Expressway drivers who don’t use electronic transponders have been hit this year with late fees and civil penalties worth hundreds of thousands of dollars – almost twice the actual tolls they were charged for using the new road.

Since TriEx opened in January in Research Triangle Park and western Wake County, the state Department of Transportation has levied $1.42 million in surcharges for drivers who did not promptly pay the bills they received by mail, for tolls worth $771,000.

It’s North Carolina’s first modern toll road, and one of the first in the nation to be built without cash toll collection booths. Some drivers have said they were puzzled when they opened toll bills for as little as 45 cents. They weren’t in a hurry to mail DOT checks that might be worth less than the postage.

But unpaid TriEx bills grow quickly. DOT tacks on a $6 late fee each month, and a $25 civil penalty after the second month.

About half the drivers on TriEx use N.C. Quick Pass transponders, and they have paid more than $707,000 in tolls this year. DOT collects its tolls automatically from debit accounts, after each trip. Quick Pass users are tolled at a lower rate, and they avoid late fees.

Eric Ellenburg of Raleigh said he inadvertently used TriEx – after taking a wrong turn one night – and was billed for 77 cents. His third bill was for $37.77.

“I can understand them wanting you not to ignore their bills, but how seriously can you take a bill for 77 cents?” said Ellenburg, 64, a restaurant waiter. “You know how many bills I get? I pay my bills, but I’m a little strapped.”

DOT officials say the surcharges have two purposes. Besides prodding bill-by-mail drivers to write those checks quickly, they also want to encourage them to get Quick Pass transponders.

“We’re not about collecting penalties or fees,” said Barry Mickle, DOT turnpike operations manager. “That’s not even contemplated in our business model. Those are there to curb people’s habits in how they drive the road. And what we’re seeing is the fees that we are charging look to be effective.”

About 72 percent of the bill-by-mail customers pay their tolls promptly, before late fees kick in, he said.

And Triangle drivers have bought more than 40,000 transponders – about 10 times the level Mickle had expected by now. Most drivers choose a windshield sticker transponder that costs $5.

The last leg

TriEx is opening this year in three phases. Toll collection started in January on a short stretch in RTP, and in August the road was extended from RTP to U.S. 64 at Apex. It will be 18.8 miles long when the last leg opens in late December, reaching south to N.C. 55 at Holly Springs.

Mickle estimates that more than 14,000 drivers use TriEx on an average weekday. He expects traffic counts to rise after December. This final section will give commuters an alternative to the worst rush-hour congestion in western Wake County, on N.C. 55 between Apex and Holly Springs.

To bill the owners of cars and trucks that don’t have transponders, DOT uses images of their license plates. That process relies on cooperation from motor vehicle agencies in other states.

DOT gets this information free of charge from DMV officials in five other states, and it sends TriEx bills to residents there. Similar arrangements are pending in other states, Mickle said.

Unpaid toll bills are referred to collection agencies.

But for now, TriEx travel is toll-free for vehicles registered in 44 states where DOT does not yet have DMV arrangements.

Most of these states charge DOT $1 or more to identify vehicle owners, Mickle said. Since these 44 states account for only 5 percent of the TriEx tolls that would be billed by mail, DOT would not be able to collect enough in tolls to cover the cost of identifying and billing the car owners.

“I’m not going to spend a dollar plus all the cost of our processing activities that occur here to collect a 50-cent toll” in other states, Mickle said. “But when it gets to the point we’re actually making money with that state, that’s when we’re going to turn on” the DMV agreement.

He said DOT will be able to collect tolls from a bigger share of TriEx users in the coming year.

Drivers who have E-ZPass transponders for toll roads in Northeastern states will be able to use them on TriEx by the end of the year. And RDU Airport rental agencies, whose cars account for a large share of the out-of-state traffic on TriEx, will be using N.C. Quick Pass transponders in their cars.

Siceloff: 919-829-4527. On the Web at twitter.com/Road_Worrier/ and blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown/. Please include address and daytime phone.

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