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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 9/6/14

Toll roads: 'Surveillance state' purveyors and enforcers

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A 34-year-old single mom spent 27 hours in the Allen jail and the Collin County Detention Center in Texas for an $11 toll bill from several years before, according to the DMN. At first, police refused to tell her why she was being arrested.

In addition to securing warrants and arrests for unpaid tolls, transportation agencies in Texas have the power to impound cars and block registrations. Repeat offenders are being banned from driving on the toll roads.

Even the U.S. Marines must bow to the authority of the toll road enforcers. The Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in California issued a warning in July about using official government vehicles on toll roads.Camp Pendleton is a premier Marines training base on the West Coast.

"Failure to promptly pay the tolls or fines will result in notification to the responsible unit's chain of command," the release states.

In Orange County, California, motorists are generating more than 17,000 violations per day under a new electronic toll road system that went into place three months ago, the Orange County Register reported.

Toll road violations in Orange County pack a fine of $57.50, so it's easy to see how all of this can turn into a massive money-maker. Toll road operators are temporarily waiving fines for "first-time" toll-road drivers, provided all tolls are paid within 30 days of the violation notice, according to the Orange County Register.

Orange County's toll road operators are paying $800,000 to hire 26 temporary workers as they sort through the mess. They'll also offer overtime to staffers, all in an effort to help educate the public on how to navigate the toll roads.

There's a reason why toll road collection efforts are so aggressive. Private investors are trying to recoup the money they fronted to help build the new roadways.

In Texas, for example, CINTRA, and several other private interests financed some of the state's managed toll roads. Other investors include the the Dallas Fire and Police pension fund.

Investors are recouping their money through managed toll road lanes on the highways. Managed lanes have variable pricing based on traffic flows and the time of day.

CINTRA, one of the world's largest managers or transportation infrastructure systems, also manages toll lanes in Orange County. Internationally, the company oversees transportation projects in Canada, Spain, Portugal, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Greece, Colombia and Australia.

Private interests not only profit from the roadways, they tap local resources by using transportation agencies, the courts and police as bill collectors.

A billing frenzy
New toll collection policies in Texas and Oklahoma are sending "customer service" call centers into overdrive. The two states recently began sharing driver license information to collect tolls from out-of-state drivers. States across the nation are doing the same.

In July, the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) was hit with so many phone calls about the practice, it had to extend its call center hours, the DMN reported. The agency is mailing out a flurry of bills, some for as little as $2.50. In the midst of it all, the NTTA sent out celebratory press releases this month in honor of the 25th anniversary of toll roads in Texas.

Toll tags typically use RFID technology that can track us everywhere - even off of the toll roads. The Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip typically used in toll tags raises a key privacy issue. The chips read and record each vehicle's passage at a toll gantry. Gantries are also equipped to photograph each license plate. Driver information collected by the system is used to send out toll bills.

RFID has long been promoted as a way to monitor products, property and people, an issue that civil liberties groups have protested for years. Back in 2008, the MIT Technology Review reported that RFID toll tags are vulnerable to hacking. Potential problems include people hacking into another account to avoid paying tolls or using a car's toll tag identity to commit a crime.

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Teri Webster is a freelance researcher/investigative journalist who also served as a long-time newspaper staff writer in New York, Nevada, California and Texas. She began her reporting career by covering the New York State Police and other (more...)

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Toll roads: 'Surveillance state' purveyors and enforcers

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