For Whom the Tolls Bell

Dallas drivers are so honest that last year the Texas Turnpike Authority collected a surplus of $21,396. Why? Because in the lanes that require correct change, people who didn’t have exactly 15 or 20 cents threw in a quarter more often than skipping the toll. The surplus sounds like a lot, but actually it represents only a little more than one half of one percent of the total 1975 collections – $3,734,121. Still, the tidy sum brings looks of envy and bewilderment at gatherings of tollway officials throughout the United States, since many cities lose considerable revenue each year from unpaid tolls.

Of course that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few scofflaws who run the gates. The penalty for unpaid tolls ranges from $1 to $100, and attendants are trained to take down license numbers of violators. But the Highway Patrol is primarily interested in repeat offenders, says Sgt. John McVean. “We’re trying to get the ones who whiz through the lanes with their windows rolled up.” The number of arrests is very small, however, considering that 52,000 vehicles per day use the tollway. Since the first of the year 49 arrests have been made, said McVean, and that includes those on the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike.

“About the biggest problem we have,” says a very satisfied J.W. Dunlap, assistant director of toll collections, “is people who get lost and get on the tollway going north and then don’t want to pay the toll.”

If you ask attendant Lowell Lord to recall any amusing things that have happened during his 18 years of collecting tolls, he has to scratch his head. “About the funniest thing is the number of people who will drive up, roll down the window on the other side of the car and try to throw their money in the basket on that side,” he said. (Less amusing are people who hurl money at him instead of the basket.) He chuckles too at the “millionaires in Cadillacs” who will get down on their hands and knees to search for a penny that missed the basket. A large sign that reads “PLEASE STAY IN CAR” discourages such attempts. If you miss the basket – which a surprising number of people do – drive on; Lord will see that your money gets into the basket (he misses occasionally too, folks).

And then there’s the story of the teenager at the Mockingbird Lane entrance to the tollway who put a piece of plastic in the bottom of the toll basket. The motorist threw his coins into the basket but the light never changed to green. In disgust, he would drive through the red light and set off the bells. Then the teenager would emerge from the shadows and grab the money. When he had collected enough, he called it a night.

Of course some people think they can outsmart the computers. Intentionally or unintentionally people have thrown bobby pins, rings, Kleenex, bottle caps, peach seeds, foreign coins (some from as far away as the West Indies), string, rubber bands, earrings, gum, syrup and chocolate candy into the baskets. The computers will accept nothing but American nickels, dimes and quarters, however; anything else just gives them indigestion. Then maintenance man John Steinauer must make a few adjustments. “The chocolate candy and syrup are the only real problems. The rest is just a nuisance,” he says.

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