TollTags will become your next utility bill

Posted Monday, Jul. 08, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
TollTags galore About 2.5 million TollTags have been issued to motorists who use the region’s tollways. A breakdown of TollTag accounts by county: Collin County: 573,360 (22 percent) Dallas County: 879,024 (33.8 percent) Denton County: 427,750 (16.45 percent) Tarrant County: 314,764 (12.12 percent) Other counties: 16 percent Source: North Texas Tollway Authority

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For Meredith Bartlemay of Plano, paying her monthly TollTag account is like settling another utility bill.

Until recently, Bartlemay worked in Hurst and racked up about $110 a month, most of it going back and forth to her job. She now works closer to home but still uses toll roads regularly for shopping and other errands.

“I actually would take certain exits, because I knew they were cheaper even if I wasn’t quite to my exit yet,” she said. “Because of my location, it is hard to go anywhere without paying a toll.”

The use of electronic TollTags, once a rarity outside greater Dallas, has grown dramatically in Fort Worth-Arlington in recent years. But officials say the western part of North Texas may be on the verge of an explosion in TollTag popularity.

The Chisholm Trail Parkway, a 28-mile toll road from southwest Fort Worth to Cleburne, is scheduled to open in about a year. And managed toll lanes are expected to open in several years on area freeways, including Texas 114/121 in Grapevine, Texas 121/183 and Loop 820 in Northeast Tarrant County, and Interstate 35W north of downtown Fort Worth.

Regional officials are also talking about converting the high-occupancy vehicle lanes on Interstate 30 in Arlington and Dallas into toll lanes over the next few years.

As those projects chug toward completion, officials at the Plano-based North Texas Tollway Authority are preparing to market their signature blue, orange and black TollTag windshield stickers to ZIP codes in Tarrant and Johnson counties that have had little interest in using the region’s tollways.

“We think people will find driving the NTTA roads a pleasant experience,” said Kenneth Barr, tollway authority board chairman and former Fort Worth mayor. “If you’re driving on city streets, you’d probably spend more money on gasoline.”

Another utility bill

Like it or not, tolls are an example of the higher bills residents of cities with a high level of suburban growth pay to get around.

Mike Karels of southwest Fort Worth has been using a TollTag since the mid-1990s. He agrees that the monthly TollTag statement is like a utility bill, but he figures it’s just part of the cost of doing his work as a technology project manager, traveling from his Hulen Meadows neighborhood to clients in places such as Las Colinas.

“Some years my tolls are not as extensive,” Karels said. “However, I have averaged it out over 17 years and I spend around $600 [annually] on tolls.”

Advocates of “smart growth,” a philosophy that encourages development of walkable neighborhoods with a mix of residential and commercial uses, have long argued that those who buy “affordable” suburban housing pay a hidden price. Because those suburban residential areas tend to be far from job centers, residents pay a disproportionate amount of money on cars, fuel and vehicle repairs, according to the Washington-based Urban Land Institute.

Also, North Texans already pay more per month for transportation than they do for housing, a 2012 report says. Metroplex residents pay an average $1,041 a month for transportation, compared with $984 for housing, according to the report, titled “Losing Ground,” by the Center for Housing Policy and Center for Neighborhood Technology. And that study didn’t factor in the cost of tolls.

TollTag explosion

The tollway authority pioneered electronic toll collection by unveiling the TollTag in 1989 — reportedly the first such device used in North America. But the windshield transponders became a vital car accessory in 2010, when the agency completed conversion of its entire tollway system to all-electronic and closed all its coin-accepting toll booths.

Since then, drivers with TollTags have their tolls automatically deducted from an account, which is typically backed by a credit card. Those without TollTags have their license plate photographed and a bill sent to the car’s registered owner — but those motorists pay higher toll rates.

As of January, 314,764 TollTags had been issued to car owners in Tarrant County, a figure that has tripled in six years. Many of those TollTags are issued to residents of east Arlington, Mansfield, Grapevine, Southlake and other Tarrant County cities, where many residents commute to the Dallas area.

Also, tollway officials credit the surge in TollTag popularity to last year’s opening of the western extension of the President George Bush Turnpike in Irving and Grand Prairie, just east of Arlington, as well as the increased use of TollTags to pay for parking at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.

But Tarrant County TollTags still represent only 12 percent of the region’s overall share. Tollway officials plan to take steps in the coming year to increase awareness of the device and its signature circular orange and black ‘T’ logo.

Marketing campaign

The agency has begun buying billboard ads in corridors used by residents of south Fort Worth, Burleson and Cleburne. One billboard on I-35W near Sycamore School Road reads: “Bumper-to-bumper: Say Adios. Fort Worth to Burleson. Chisholm Trail Parkway, 2014.”

The agency also plans to open a TollTag Store in the Fort Worth area in coming months, so residents can stop in and learn more about how the devices work, agency spokesman Michael Rey said. The agency will also consider buying radio ads and marketing efforts at attractions such as TCU sporting events, to reach out to the Fort Worth-area population.

When the Chisholm Trail Parkway is completed next year, the entire 28-mile roadway is scheduled to open at once.

“The main thing we have to do is making people aware there’s going to be a whole other road available to them,” Rey said. “If they plan to use it, the TollTag is the best way to do it.”

Although residents of Fort Worth-Arlington have resisted toll roads to get around their cities, the western subregion is no stranger to tolls as a way to travel long distances. The history goes back to 1957, when the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike was built to speed travel between Fort Worth, Arlington and Dallas.

But that historical connection may be lost on many younger motorists, or those who recently moved to North Texas. The turnpike disappeared in 1977, after the debt to build the toll road was paid off, and it was converted to a toll-free highway now known as Interstate 30.

Still, many western Metroplex residents are getting used to paying their monthly toll bill, along with the routine utility bills such as electricity, water, mobile phones and cable or satellite television.

Geraldine and Darrell Carey of Mineral Wells recently bought TollTags, even though they only occasionally use tollways. They like the idea of paying less for the tolls and also not worrying about receiving a bill in the mail.

“I agree that more of us from the area will be getting TollTags,” Geraldine Carey said. “We hate to ‘pay to drive,’ but experience has taught us that there are some routes in the Metroplex area that just leave us few alternatives.”

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796 Twitter: @gdickson

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