Toll road's balloon payments

October 15, 2012 

You can pay me now or pay me later – that was the hook in a 1980s oil filter commercial warning that postponed maintenance costs a bundle. These days, the Triangle Expressway has its own twist on the message: You can pay me now or pay through the nose.

Motorists who let an envelope from the new toll road on Research Triangle Park’s western edge slide to the bottom of the bill-payment stack are in for an expensive surprise. The actual toll, which can be picayune, balloons after a couple of postponed payments to a plus-size headache. For example, a 77 cent bill for a tollway trip reaches $37.77 upon the third notice, because of late fees ($6 a month) and civil penalties ($25, charged after two months).

It all stems from the Expressway’s ultra-modern tolling system. Like toll roads up and down the East Coast, the system features in-vehicle transponders linked to pre-designated credit or debit cards, or prepaid accounts. What’s new, and just about unique to the TriEx, is the setup for assessing charges to vehicles without transponders.

No toll booths for them; no forking over on the spot. Instead of paying on the day of their ride, vehicle owners get bills in the mail after their tollway trips, via a system that reads license plates and matches them to home addresses.

It was always a question, once the system was announced, just how the TriEx folks were going to get transponder-less drivers to ante up, rather than let bills from a little-known agency slide. Now we know: mega-fees for slow payers, as detailed by The N&O’s Bruce Siceloff in news story last week.

We get it.

Still, there’s something disagreeable about a system that takes a toll of less than a buck and blows it up into such a big deal. What’s next? They take your first-born after six months?

If banks were doing this sort of things with their fees ... oh, right. They do. So do many of the infamous payday lenders. But a public agency looking to attract customers? There must be a better way.

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