One day last year, traffic was heavy on I-40.
I was in a hurry, as well as a bad mood. So it was worth the buck or so it would cost me to bail and take the 147 South toll road.
I wasn’t aware at the time that my EZ Pass was no longer working. Unlike toll booths on large interstate highways, where there are electronic signs informing you that the toll was paid or there was a problem with your transponder, there was no signage on 147 telling me that I hadn’t paid the toll. I ended up doing it two other days that month.
At the end of the month, I received a bill in the mail for $2.79. I was a little annoyed that no one had informed me of the problem, especially since I’d already taken the toll road a couple other times since the end of that billing period.
I then set the bill aside and forgot about it, because … $2.79.
I will fully stipulate that, EZ Pass problems aside, I should have paid the bill. It was my responsibility, and I deserved to be charged some type of penalty for failing to pay the bill on time.
And I was.
The following month, I received a bill from the N.C. Turnpike Authority that included a $6.00 late fee. On a $2.79 balance.
Outraged at the 215% fee, I refused to pay the bill on principle.
Outraged at my failure to pay, the N.C. Turnpike Authority hit me with another fee the following month … for $31.00.
Fast forward a year: I attempted to renew my car registration and was told that it was blocked, due to nonpayment of tolls.
I pulled up my account and tallied up the final damage.
Total unpaid tolls: $20.79
Total fees: $98.00
For every dollar I owed, they charged me $4.33 in fees.
As outrageous and irresponsible as that may seem, it’s easy to wave it off as my own fault. A normal consumer would just pay the bill on time, or suck it up and pay the fees grudgingly before it ever got to that point. Right?
Well, actually, that’s not the case. In fact, I’m the average customer. WRAL’s Five on Your Side has handled more than a dozen complaints from customers who were billed exorbitant amounts for small unpaid tolls. In April 2013, Andy Lelewski, the state’s director of toll road operations, acknowledged that “changes to the Quick Pass system are needed” and told WRAL he would “work with the legislature to make some adjustments.”
Eight months later, an article in the News & Observer announced that the DOT’s planned to “get tough” with customers who don’t pay their tolls. At the time, drivers owed “tolls worth more than $815,000 – plus $3.4 million in late fees and civil penalties.”
For every dollar in fees owed the DOT, they charge an average of $4.29 in late fees and civil penalties. And that was before the DOT decided to “get tough.”
In fact, the DOT seems to have found the world’s best business model—one that provides a more than 500 percent return on investment. They’re also able to operate without having to worry about collections, since drivers who don’t pay find their registrations suspended.
Just how out of proportion is the DOT’s fee structure? Consider the industry considered the poster child for gouging customers—credit cards.
Federal law prohibits card companies from charging fees more than the amount owed. For instance, a consumer who exceeds a credit limit by $10 can’t be charged more than a $10 penalty. Those late making a $25 minimum payment can’t be charged a penalty of more than $25.
Credit card companies also can’t double-up fees, and charge a customer for doing two things wrong at once (a late fee and an over limit fee, for instance). The DOT did that in month two of my bill, when they had the $6.00 monthly fee and a $25.00 “civil penalty.”
Finally, federal law states, “if someone doesn’t pay a minimum payment for two or more consecutive billing cycles, the issuer can impose a late fee of up to 3 percent of the delinquent balance.”
That means, if the DOT acted the same way as my credit card company, I would owe about 62 cents for my late tolls. And the $815,000 in unpaid tolls across the state would generate $24,450 in penalties, instead of $3.4 million.
Plus, credit card companies have to pay for their own collections, instead of having a government agency withhold services for unpaid bills.
The implication is clear: Visa and Mastercard need to find a way to become part of the government. Then they’d really be able to turn a profit.