Our Tollway Guys Can't Even Collect Tolls -- and That's Just the Start of Their Problems

Categories: Schutze

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If I had one of those framed crochet mottos on the wall over my desk, it would say, "Give Credit Where Credit is Due, asterisk." Below the asterisk at the bottom of the frame it would say, "Except for the Dallas Morning News."

Ah, but you know. Sometimes you gotta stretch. Gotta do it, even if it sticks. So, here goes.

The News has done a great job recently -- transportation writer Michael Lindenberger in particular -- covering two big stories at the North Texas Tollway Authority. I especially love the story in today's paper revealing that the NTTA spent $137,000 on lawyer fees in a failed three-years-long attempt to keep top-secret wraps on some obviously public documents.

So what was their big top secret? When the agency finally lost the fight and was ordered to turn the material over to the News, their secrets turned out to be a bunch of generic criticism of the agency by a former executive director who told the agency they were too busy whoring to their longtime "legacy" contractors to get the job done properly.

In other words, there was no big strategic secret. It was just a guy with a lot of credibility in their own industry telling them they were idiots. The NTTA didn't spend six figures to protect proprietary information. They spent it to avoid embarrassment.

There's a second, much bigger story that the News has done a great job on, with one potential caveat that I feel obligated to offer. The News has been reporting that, since becoming the first toll road agency in America to eliminate all toll booths, the NTTA has racked up horrendous amounts of uncollected tolls. Lindenberger has reported the total amount uncollected in "scofflaw" tolls at $294 million.

Collection rates are terrible in part because the billing system is bad -- 28 percent of people who don't pay tolls never even get a bill -- and that's because the cameras are way below fool-proof. Those people don't get a bill because the camera couldn't tell who they were.

The News recently published one of those trademark boney-finger-wag tch-tch editorials telling those naughty toll-skippers to just pay up. And the NTTA itself, after arguing for years that the names of the top scofflaws were top-secret, need-to-know, eyes-only, burn-this-document secrets, has begun publishing them on a special web page to shame them into paying. That tells me the NTTA needs that money. Bad.

Because the NTTA has tried to bludgeon the scofflaws into paying by tacking on absurd penalties, some of these people have unpaid toll debts in the sixty and seventy grand range. A few are in the six figures range. One of them alone could pay the NTTA's whole legal bill for trying to keep public documents secret.

So the scoffers do what? Pull the kid out of college and put the house on the market to get their name off a web page? Yeah, that'll work.

Now today -- just a second here, allow me to check on the condition of my craw to see just how badly this one is going to stick -- columnist Steve Blow makes a somewhat partially conceivably semi-valid point: that none of this campaign of public shaming has produced one nickel in new revenues.

So my caveat? Well, there's another bridge to get to in this story having to do with the NTTA's debt, its total level of borrowing, the assumptions it made about its ability to collect tolls when it switched to the booth-free system four years ago and the effect all of that may have on the bond ratings. And so far the News has not gone to that bridge.

So let's you and me traipse up to it and have a look-see. The first thing to say about the NTTA's bond ratings is that they have always been stellar and still are right now. The ratings agencies have always found that the NTTA can make a ton of money building toll roads in North Texas because North Texas is looking at a ton of growth in the years ahead.

But they do have to collect the money. And the ratings agencies are watchful of that issue, if not downright nervous. Both Moody's and Standard & Poor's have been making a point of it in recent years -- singling out the no-toll-booths scheme as something that could bring down the credit ratings for the NTTA if it turns out the NTTA isn't collecting its tolls.

Think of it this way: Before 2008, when they were still doing what toll road companies have done from time immemorial -- collecting the money at a booth -- their collection rates for tolls were close to 100 percent. Actually, the NTTA has declared that its collection rate back then was 98 percent on tolls.

When they began converting to the booth-less system in '98, the NTTA was telling everyone that toll collections would not be a problem:

"After comparing our current collection rate to the ZipCash collection rate at Wycliff Avenue," the NTTA stated confidently, "we can confidently say that we do not anticipate the collection of tolls to become a concern when we transition to all-electronic toll collection. We have a very aggressive collection policy and will seek payment from anyone who uses our roadways. Furthermore, revenue lost by a small decline in the collection rate will be offset by operations and maintenance savings."

So are those the same assurances they gave to the bond market when they went there to borrow billions of dollars? Hmmm. Problem?

The ratings agencies have been signaling for at least two years that the raters could get a serious case of the antsies if the fall-off in toll collections at the NTTA gets bad. Well, guess what? It's real bad.

And, by the way, I don't think this issue is completely unrelated to the six figures the agency spent to avoid embarrassment from a former CEO telling them they were stupid. In fact, let's try the whole no-toll-booths idea on for size again.

Let's say that a young man named Mohawk Thrombosis Thumb the Fifth graduates from Yale this year and takes over the Tom Thumb grocery chain. In exchange for their continued support, he vows to his nieces and nephews who are collecting pre-Columbian pots in Central America that he will cut costs in all the stores and send the pot collectors bigger dividend checks soon.

Mohawk Thumb spots a huge cost item in the budget called, "Cashiers." So his big idea is to fire all of the cashiers and just bill everyone by snapping a picture of their jeans on the way out.

What could go wrong?

Listen. The huge amount of uncollected tolls under the new system at NTTA falls right in that same pocket. Is the ultimate problem here a matter of finance? Or I.Q.? That's what the ratings agencies have got to be asking themselves in the wake of these disclosures at NTTA.

Oh, the tin hat is over there on the shelf beckoning to me. No. NO! I am not going to put it on. I am not going to suggest that the News pulls back from this inevitable extension of its own story because it doesn't want the NTTA to be so weakened that it won't be able to build the Trinity River Toll Road that the owners of the News want more than the kingdom of heaven itself. I refuse. I am just not going to go there.

Instead, I'm going to do the honorable and gentlemanly thing, old tip of the top-hat you know, righto, bit of a salute, fine job and carry on, great work with those NTTA stories, you little snoozies.

... even if it does stick in the craw a bit, cough-cough, Trinity Toll Road, cough, never gonna happen, cough-cough, total idiots, cough-cough-cough, News won't admit it ... hacking cough sounds.

Well that's what I call spitting it out. What a guy I am. Coulda told you I'm quite the sport. You never asked. Sure. No problem.


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21 comments
putesputes
putesputes

The electronic toll-collection system in Dallas is terrible.

The reasons why I don’t like the electronic toll-collection system Dallas.

1)      The toll sticker is NOT transportable. In other words, it can only be use on one car. This is crazy! Why should a toll system care about which car has the sticker?  A toll system should only care about collecting tolls regardless of the car. The problems are obvious. I can’t use the electronic toll-collection if I rent car. I can’t lend it to a friend. It is a hassle when selling or buying cars. Even changing the tag is hassle. This generates too much red tape!!! This costs money!!! I have multiple cars which means I have to buy multiple stickers at $40 bucks each which is a big deterrent to use the toll highways!!!! NTTA thinks it is being smart by doing this. Actually they are being dumb. NTTA should not care about selling the sticker themselves. That is a one time fee while collecting tolls is forever!!!! So NTTA is missing on potential toll collections. The more cars I can use the electronic toll-collection the more I use the toll highways. It is not the other way around. It also smacks of big brother to me. The civil rights organizations should be looking into this.

2)      I hate the sticker method. It looks ugly. It ruins my car. When it is hot 100 degrees or more, it makes a mess. NTTA should sell an electronic toll-collection in plastic casing that users can place anywhere they want!

3)      It only works in one state, TX. NTTA should join EZPass which works across more than 14 states and the list keeps on increasing. With EZPass points 1 and 2 are not an issue. EZPass got it right. It is about collecting tolls and not about collecting one time fees by selling toll stickers.

4)      Getting a sticker at the NTTA office is a hassle. I do most of my orders over the internet. However, I was near the NTTA office and I thought that I would buy one easily without waiting for the sticker to arrive in the mail. Nope, there was a huge line. Not only that, once I got to talk to an agent, the guy asked is I had a form filled out. Well, I didn’t since there was not sign that saying that it was necessary. So I went to pick a form I read it and it asks to write the same information that is on my driver’s license. This is a crazy; couldn’t the agent just read this information from my driver’s license and punch it in the computer? Well, I didn’t want to fill the dumb form and get back in line again so I left mad as hell.

5)      The violators list. Yet again, another big brother scenario and another reason for the civil rights organizations should be looking into this.

 

guest
guest

to pay the toll between 635 and Dtn is to except a lie that once the road was paid, it would become a freeway.

Not to pay is civil disobedience, and correct.

 

jason1075
jason1075

Great article.  I hate NTTA.  I hate that the powers that be didn't keep their word and discontinue the program once the roads were paid.  The penalties are insane.  What other business has something like that?  We have a product that is $.75 and if our billing system doesn't work, we charge you another $30.  WTF!?!?!  I don't want to have a toll tag.  I want to pay cash.  Let me remind you that the booths meant jobs for a lot of people.  And I'm not paying some f'ing penalty fee.  It's extortion to force people to adopt a system they don't want.  So as you can guess, I might be on that list.  They keep threatening lawsuit.  I can't wait.  I hope they take me to court.

rufuslevin
rufuslevin

much of the "unpaid" money is NOT tolls.  It is PENALTIES. Now a $200 penalty on an unpaid $20 bill is not going to get any traction in this economy.  but the NTTA HAS to keep it on their Balance Sheet as ASSETS...even though they should be written off as uncollectable...they would never stand up in debtors court with the lack of proof from a photo of a license plate to PROVE who was driving or owning the car at the time.

 

This has a stench of desperate bureaucrats a la the democrat party's debbie wasserman-pooperchutes mentality.....scream, holler, blame, point fingers...but in the end...the money will not get collected, some settlements are possible, but the NTTA balance sheet will take the hit it should already take....EXCEPT they are trying to protect their ratings vis a vis the stupid replacement of toll booths with poorly arranged signs and photography.

 

 

Sotiredofitall
Sotiredofitall topcommenter

A lot of this comes from our state legislature being too cowardly to raise the state gasoline tax.  It's easier to sell roads and take on more debt.   1991 was the last year the tax was raised and 80% of transportation funds come from this tax.

JimS
JimS

So DonO: you figure Moody's and Standard & Poor's are just goofballs, wanting them to collect the damn tolls?

jerrylwebb
jerrylwebb

Well said.....So those of us that PAY....are we picking up the tab, I think so...another stab wound.

Don O.
Don O.

Hey, here's a research project for JS.  How much did NTTA "save" on an annual basis by getting rid of the tollbooths, and how much have they "lost"  from uncollected tolls with the plate reader technology system?  Include the cost of installing the system and demolishing the booths as a separate item, if you wish.  Might be interesting numbers.

Don O.
Don O.

Actually, they do have booths, but they are closed off now.  So does the north end of MOPAC in Austin.  I always used their pay by mail and never had a problem with them. 

Jared Heath
Jared Heath

yea, my parents in Arkansas haven't gotten a bill from 9 months ago yet, either.

Anon
Anon

the system lacks the capability to bill out of state drivers.

cynical old bastard
cynical old bastard

 The NTTA is a government agency.  They just don't have any oversight.

Gretchen Niles
Gretchen Niles

I get my bill without fail with a photo of my vehicle & tag number.

Joel Leggett
Joel Leggett

If they really wanted people to pay up they would have some kind of amnesty program. The fees are crazy.

EdD.
EdD.

Note to self: new commenting system no longer allows HTML markup or editing of comments even while logged in. Dang.

EdD.
EdD.

 @Sotiredofitall Plus the state is diverting a lot of that money into the general fund isn't helping.

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