What happened to freeways?

By Nancy Black

Woo hoo! Look at me go. I’m flying down LBJ Freeway like it was made just for me! The road signs in my mind read “Nancy’s Freeway,” just like Bob, the guy from that popular car commercial. He’s seen on TV speeding down the road in his brand-new vehicle, spying a horrible traffic jam ahead of him, and taking the next exit, which reads, “Bob’s Freeway.” The road is open only for him.

I was experiencing the new “Express Toll Lanes” on the infamously congested Loop 635 around our fair city. For a small price, anyone can access the road to freedom, too. But what is the actual price of separating the haves from the have nots?

I found out the answer to that question this past Sunday when I decided not to take “my” freeway. It was Sunday at 9:30 a.m. How could there possibly be traffic? Two words: Work Crew. Just about the time I passed the last entrance to the new express lanes, traffic in front of me came to a screeching halt. And then we didn’t move for exactly 30 minutes. I know, because I painstakingly watched the clock in my car tick the minutes off one by one. This, as I also watched the privileged few who chose to pay toll fees zoom past the hundreds of stranded drivers on the “free” part of the freeway.

Don’t we all pay the taxes it takes to build those express lanes? Didn’t we all have to wait, what’s it been — 20 years or so — for them to finish construction on the stretch of freeway between the High 5 and the I-35 interchange? Why do only those with enough money to spend on daily toll charges get to fly past everyone else on the road?

I ask all the questions because I have had close contact with the toll road authorities recently and I still don’t know the answers. I wrote “authorities” (plural) because there is not just one governing body over toll roads in Texas. I found this out the hard way.

I do not drive the toll roads around Dallas very often, so I didn’t have a toll tag. I was one of those “pay by mail” kind of drivers. Not anymore. After a couple of trips down to Austin, and a few jaunts down LBJ’s new express lanes, I started getting bills from four different tollway authorities. One was from ZipCash, one from the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA), one from TEXpress Lanes and the last one was from a collections agency. Yikes!

I didn’t know which one to pay. Three different phone calls and customer assistants later, I was able to get it all straightened out.

I ended up getting a Toll Tag, too, because it was cheaper. Not cheaper to drive around with a Toll Tag in the future; cheaper to buy one right before I paid off my old bills.

Turns out, if I bought a toll tag right then and there, they could somehow reduce my charges, therefore reducing my late fees. And we are talking big time late fees. For years, the toll tag authorities have been charging astronomical late fees for unpaid bills.

“But they are getting ready to change that,” the toll representative I spoke with on the phone told me. “You can either pay the entire $330 now ($30 for the original tolls and $300, YES, $300 for the accrued fines!), and when they change the rules about fines, the NTTA will issue you a refund. Or,” she continued, “You can pay only the $30 now and wait for the official decision about the accrued fines, and then pay them, if you still have to.”

Hum? Let me think about it … I happily paid the $30 and wished her a great afternoon.

People (like me) think when a turnpike is paid off, like the Dallas North Tollway was years ago, it should become free to use. But there is no legislation mandating the cessation of tolls that the NTTA, a political subdivision of the State of Texas, has to follow. In fact, there is even talk of making Central Expressway a tollway.

Whatever happened to going out for a simple (and free) Sunday drive?

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