Road Worrier: NCDOT gets tougher with TriEx deadbeats; tolls to rise

A car drives under the toll gantry Aug. 1, 2012, which records the vehicles as they pass underneath to assess the toll at the north end the Triangle Expressway.
A car drives under the toll gantry Aug. 1, 2012, which records the vehicles as they pass underneath to assess the toll at the north end the Triangle Expressway.

State toll collectors are about to get tough with deadbeats who don’t pay their bills for trips on the 18-mile Triangle Expressway.

Starting next year, 73,000 TriEx drivers with delinquent toll bills will find collections agencies hounding them to pay up. And they will be blocked from renewing their automobile registrations with the state Division of Motor Vehicles.

The state Department of Transportation said it is taking these new steps to collect delinquent tolls from drivers who are at least three months late in paying for their TriEx trips. The delinquent bills include tolls worth more than $815,000 – plus $3.4 million in late fees and civil penalties.

These are folks who receive toll bills in the mail, based on photos of their license plates. DOT levies the late fees, which pile up fast at $6 per month, and the $25 penalties to prod drivers to pay their bills and to open N.C. QuickPass transponder accounts. Transponder users pay automatically, with tolls at a lower rate, and DOT saves the expense of billing them by mail.

Drivers began paying electronic tolls on the first section of TriEx in January 2012, and the complete expressway has been open since last December. But DOT held off using these new enforcement measures until now.

“Our whole plan was to give everyone a chance to true up, prior to taking any collection activity or registration hold activity,” said John Breedlove, operations manager for the N.C. Turnpike Authority.

TriEx traffic volume has increased steadily this year, with toll collections running ahead of projections in a traffic-and-revenue forecast that was used as the basis for financing the project.

There are no tollbooths on TriEx, no drivers pitching quarters into baskets, but most folks pay their way. By the end of September, DOT had collected more than $13 million in tolls.

“That’s the good story,” Breedlove said. “People drive the road and pay the tolls.”

But some drivers never receive bills for their TriEx trips. DOT sends out toll bills only for cars registered in North Carolina or in other states with which North Carolina has reciprocal DMV agreements that make it easy to match license plates with owners and their addresses.

Sometimes TriEx drivers with out-of-state plates call DOT or the Road Worrier to report that they’ve never received a bill. They don’t want to be surprised with a pile of late fees.

Breedlove said there are about 30 states where drivers are not likely to receive TriEx bills now. That should change in coming months, he said, when DOT works out an arrangement with a private company to get car ownership and billing address details for those exotic license plates.

“Once we get that process in place, they will be invoiced,” Breedlove said. State law allows DOT to bill only for toll trips within the past 90 days.

Meanwhile, these far-flung drivers account for only a small portion of TriEx traffic. Some of them pay already, because they use E-ZPass transponders in 14 Northeastern states or SunPass transponders in Florida. Of DOT’s 73,000 delinquent TriEx customers, Breedlove said, only 8 percent are from outside North Carolina.

The new collection actions will be rolled out gradually in the first months of 2014. TriEx drivers who owe DOT more than $500 are receiving letters that give them a Jan. 31 deadline to pay. After that, the collection agency takes over and DMV blocks the registration renewal.

The pay-up deadline is Feb. 28 for customers who owe between $300 and $499 in tolls, fees and penalties. For those who owe less than $300, it’s March 31.

Starting in April, DOT will use collection agencies and registration holds on everybody with toll bills at least 90 days overdue. For any bill unpaid after six months, the state Department of Revenue will be asked to garnish the owner’s tax refunds.

No more Mr. Nice DOT.

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