Orange County toller stands up to firemen trying to bully free rides (+COMMENT)

December 1, 2007

Orange County tollroads have been under criticism for insisting that a Los Angeles County fire company pay a toll on the San Joaquin Hills tollroad (CA73). Their firetruck wasn't attending a fire.

Frank Barbagallo, in charge of toll compliance at the county Toll Roads (legally TCA) said the firemen seemed to think just because they were firefighters they didn't have to pay the toll. Most US toll authorities don't levy a toll on emergency vehicles with their lights and sirens going, but otherwise they are usually expected to pay their toll like everyone else. Most give organized military convoys or formal police escorts of VIPs free rides but individual soldiers or cops get tolled like anyone else.

Some toll authorities don't toll transit buses. Some give their own staff free rides, others toll them like everyone else. Others still follow the medieval practice of exempting funeral processions, though none I've heard of still give toll exemption to the clergy or churchgoers - a common practice with toll bridges in the 18th century and before.

The Orange County Toll Roads give free rides to California Highway (Police) Patrol, Orange County Fire Authority and one or two other specific emergency services with which they have formal no-toll agreements. Presumably they get something in return.

The TCA, Barbagallo says, forgives the toll to outside emergency services that are actively involved in an emergency, as units fighting the recent wildfires. But that's a one-off and discretionary goodwill gesture, not a formal toll exemption.

When LA Fire Company 116 refused to pay a $5 toll Oct 19 the amount due to TCA quickly escalated with penalties to $100. After some discussion back and forth the LA fire company agreed it was liable for the toll. Then the toller, having toll liability acknowledged, accepted $20 in settlement. They waived penalties for an improved attitude, a common reward given to reformed violators.

Here's a cheer for TCA for not compromising a principle. Tollers should adopt a clear "We toll all, always" policy and they should publicize it with signs: "EVERYONE PAYS TOLLS ALWAYS - NO EXCEPTIONS".

Once exemptions are conceded there's endless argument with groups thinking they are just as worthy of free rides as those already enjoying exemptions from the toll. And the toll payers understandably resent the free rider rackets.

If the tollroad can afford to give that guy a free ride, why not me, they ask?

Exemptions are invariably abused beyond their intended purpose. So a bunch of firemen with a no-revenue transponder to go free to fires will most often be using it for the donuts and coffee runs.

How many no-revenue transponders do you give them? They are soon sticking them in their private vehicles. And giving them to friends...

That's just human nature. But it is human nature too, to get angry at a toll that others get away without having to pay.

Giving exemptions generates serious ill will among the tollroad's paying customers, the very people who provide it sustenance. Resentful customers are more likely to violate and to vandalize.

Exemptions are a vestige of medieval kingly privilege, or they reek of the favoritism of corrupt autocracies in which inside cliques including persons deemed to be "officials" get favors at the expense of ordinary people.

Such special treatments are intolerable in a free republic like the US.

The justification for giving exemption from tolls to emergency vehicles attending an emergency used to be that toll collection itself would delay them. But with electronic tolling - by transponder and camera - toll collection doesn't cause delays any more.

Tollroad service should be a monthly expense for the emergency services just like electricity, telephones and other utilities. The firefighters themselves don't need to worry about it. It's an issue for their accountant just like other operating costs.

Someone pointed out the only reason MTA's Triborough Bridges and Tunnels in New York City have to give out thousands of orange colored "non-revenue" transponders to police and firefighters is that they have an archaic gated system which physically traps vehicles without a working transponder behind a gate. And that gate indeed might delay a firetruck getting to a fire or an ambulance getting to a scene of carnage if it had a nonworking transponder.

MTAB&T don't have the capability to let the vehicle pass with a video toll.

But they, the Dulles Greenway and one or two others are the oddity.

Modern toll systems as operated now by most US tollroads don't physically stop anyone at all and in the case of open road tolling don't even slow them down. So there is no justification to offer toll exemptions... except of course if Maxwell House or someone else wants to pick up all the bills and give everyone a ride "on the House" in return for the publicity. 

Toll operations are businesses, not favor dispensers.

TOLLROADSnews 2007-12-01

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