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