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100,000 Years Ago

One hundred thousand years ago, a caveman was out hunting in the plains during winter. In his misfortune, he slipped and fell into a crevasse where he was trapped and eventually frozen solid. In 2017, he was discovered by scientists, carefully taken back to their lab, and thawed out—revived! The scientists helped him assimilate into society and sent him to college, and he became… The Unfrozen Caveman Consultant!

Fast-Forward to Today

“Ladies and Gentlemen of the Council, I’m just a caveman…your world confuses and frightens me. When I see these busy highways and people talking into a magic box, I run home as fast as I can to the warm tones of my Amazon Echo. I’m more at home smashing rocks together, than smashing sales records. And when I see groceries delivered to my home by a small drone, like I did last week after ordering from the interwebs, I can’t help but think, ‘Oh no, is this strange machine from the sun god coming to destroy me,’ because I am just a caveman….but there is one thing I do know. Roads aren’t free.”

Recent Events in the Texas House

“On May 16th, 2017, the Texas House passed a bill to continue operation of the Texas Department of Transportation, with a disturbing amendment. The amendment included language for a maximum toll violation fine.”

“(b) If a person fails to [pay a toll, TxDOT] may add an administrative fee, not to exceed $6, to the amount the person owes. [TxDOT]:…(2) may not charge a person more than $48 in administrative fees in a 12-month period.”

“I’m just a caveman, but $48 in a 12-month period is barely more than my current re-bill amount on my tag account…which gets billed twice a month (or ask a friendly truck driver who has driven on the Verrazano bridge lately about…whoa).”

Marcelle Jones, Senior Transportation Policy Advisor at Jacobs Engineering, stated, “I agree that tolling agencies must be sure that their administrative fees reflect their costs to collect and not an attempt to penalize the motorist. [This amendment was not] vetted by the House Transportation Committee, which means there was no hearing and opportunity to hear of the potential impacts on TxDOT [who has to actually manage the roads and collect the tolls/fees].”

“This is powerful.”

How it all Started

“Think back to when you first learned of a tollway, toll bridge, or turnpike. The idea, simply put, is that someone–some entity–pays the upfront costs to build and operate a roadway, and then they charge the drivers who drive on it a toll to pay them back for their investment.”

“In the days of the wooly mammoth, a few saber toothed tiger bones were collected for the toll and then on the customer would go. This method was predictable and easily enforceable. If the customer didn’t pay the toll, they couldn’t get past the gate.”

“As toll roads became more and more congested, removal of gates and toll booths significantly increases customer safety; however, this change allows some customers the opportunity to not pay–accidentally or purposefully.”

The Real Problem

“Regretfully, both lawmakers and drivers don’t fully understand how roads are paid for. The gas tax is incurred at the pump, transparent to most drivers. Gas taxes fund most roads in the US. In Texas, and in most states, lawmakers ignore the need to increase the gas tax.” (It was last changed in 1991 in Texas.)

“Would you expect to cover all of your bills if your salary hadn’t gone up since Heavy D and REM were in your CD player? The lack of adequate tax funding has caused tolls to be in the forefront of funding options for new roads in metropolitan areas.”

“Why don’t we hear anyone screaming at the top of their lungs that the gas tax should be raised?”

“Most toll facilities in the US are funded by bonds. Bondholders expect the operator to try really hard to collect the tolls. This ensures the bondholders get their investment back. Regular toll road drivers typically expect all customers to pay or be held accountable. Just like a purchase at Target or Walmart, the cost of whatever good or service you buy includes some portion of stolen goods and services and collection costs. You don’t get to walk out with that wicker basket without paying. Why should the next person?”

Marcelle stressed that she agrees, “Most agencies, including TxDOT, readily work with customers to resolve mistakes and educate them on their options…Penalties are necessary for the flagrant violators who cheat the system and motorists who pay.”

Sensible Solutions

“What this amendment does is honorable in its intent. What is sadly ignored is reality.”

“When I was in college, any qualified graduating student–not just cavemen–who had not returned a library book could NOT graduate until the fee was paid. Guess what? Students paid the fine. When someone doesn’t pay the electrical bill, the lights shut off. The same goes for cable… cell phones… water. No one expects to get these services for free, so why should transportation be any different? There has to be a balance of incurred cost and responsibility.”

“Rep. Minjarez stated that she wanted to decriminalize toll violations…I’ve worked with many tolling authorities to draft toll violation and enforcement statutes and policies. Treating toll violations as a civil offense is not uncommon,” said Marcelle.

“This makes a lot of sense. This puts the burden of proof on the plaintiff to show a preponderance of evidence. As a citizen you should know where your taxes go, appreciate where they don’t go, and demand your lawmakers are reasonable when they have strong opinions.”

“…But I am just a caveman.”

(Thank you Saturday Night Live, the late/great Phil Hartman, and Jack Handey for this great character.)