Whether black-and-whites should pay tolls
a gray issue
Monday, January 08, 2007
Wear, Austin American-Statesman
The Central Texas toll roads, as you may have
heard, began charging Saturday — other than for
people with toll tags, who won't start paying
until next month.
And "emergency vehicles." Well, some of them
And therein lies a deceptively complicated tale,
and choice, for toll road operators like the
Texas Department of Transportation.
The agency, at least based on comments at a
Texas Transportation Commission meeting in
December, would like to waive the tolls only for
marked police cars, fire vehicles and ambulances
in the act of responding to an incident.
That might mean, in practice, only those
vehicles running with lights and sirens going.
And maybe, officials said, a free drive might be
OK for marked police cars doing routine
patrolling on a toll road.
All other public safety vehicles, under this
rubric, would have to pay.
Some leading Central Texas cops spoke at that
December commission meeting against this limited
toll amnesty. They want all police vehicles
They argue that the state is making a false
distinction, or at least an unproductive one.
And for every $50,000 the Austin Police
Department pays in tolls each year, well, that's
one less rookie cop who could have been hired to
keep you and me safe.
The state, meanwhile, is trying to stay off
what they see as the slippery slope of toll
forgiveness, and thus lost revenue. Let all
police vehicles off the hook, the thinking goes
— including, for instance, a cop in an unmarked
or marked car driving home from work — and
before long, you'll have Austin library
advocates saying Bookmobiles should drive free.
After all, every $15 of tolls is one less
book that the perpetually strapped library
department could have bought.
What about school buses? And parks vehicles?
Meals on Wheels? And so on.
But back to the cops. The problem in making
such distinctions is how the toll system works.
Start with the assumption that police
agencies would get toll tags for all of their
cars, if for no other reason than to get the 10
percent discount from cash tolls. They also
wouldn't have to stop at toll booths, which is
the main argument for exempting them from tolls
in the first place.
Those overhead electronic toll tag readers,
however, aren't equipped to distinguish between
a marked cop car with lights flashing on its way
to an assault and an unmarked car with crime
So, in practice, what would have to happen is
that all tollway trips would be charged to the
Then, to get tolls forgiven after the fact,
individual cops would have to keep a log of
their toll road driving and note when they were
in an active emergency and when not. Which means
there'd have to be some administrative types on
the force handling this accounting process, and
dealing (haggling) with the tollway folks.
And not an easy policy decision either.
Police cars aren't exempt from the gas tax,
after all. Should tolls, which are really just a
gussied-up tax, be any different?
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