Joe Coe was excited when he first heard about the toll-by-plate lane for the Foley Beach Express Bridge.
About 10 times he actually used the service, rolling through without stopping to pay. He said he mainly used it when he was taking his mother to the doctor, and rather than wait in line, he’d use the toll-by-plate lane. He waited and waited for a bill. When several bills finally arrived, they said he owed $365.
“I hadn’t seen a bill in so long I finally said to hell with it,” Coe said. “It was June when I used the toll. I called them in July and they said they still had nothing. I thought, ‘they’ll send me a bill sometime.’ The first notification I got was September and it told me I owed a bill, then another bill, then another bill and then another bill.”
He’s a little leery about ever using the service again.
“Damn right I won’t use the toll-by-plate again,” Coe said. “I’m going to stop and pay.”
What he was expecting to cost him $29.50 total ended up being $36.50 per trip.
“They said it was for administrative fees,” Coe said. “They said they had to call the state DMV. I asked how they could justify charging that much. No one can answer that question.”
Eventually, he was told to call a toll-free number and talk to a different office of American Roads, the company that owns the Foley Beach Express Bridge. After more questions and no answers, his bill was reduced to about $196, or about $19.60 per trip.
“I decided to go ahead and pay it so they couldn’t ruin my credit,” Coe said.
American Roads CEO Neal Belitsky said the extra fees are mandated by the state.
“By regulation, fees increase once they become past due,” Belitsky said. “Beach Express customer service staff work with travelers and customers with an insufficient balance on their account on the fee if they open an account.”
Belitsky said in an email to Lagniappe that the company has decided to waive the fees for the rest of the year.
“Each invoice includes a progressive fee: $5 for the first invoice, an additional $45 for the second invoice and an additional $50 on the third invoice,” Belitsky said. “All administrative fees, up to the maximum of $100, the total of the three fees, will be waived if the past due tolls are paid in full.”
But Coe’s experience is not uncommon. Several residents who received invoices voiced concerns on social media about the administrative fees and even posted pictures of the bills.
Brandi Franks, who didn’t want to identify the company she works for, posted a picture of a bill for more than $50 for a single trip through. Two of the company’s service trucks used the toll-by-plate lane, but the first bill she received said payment was already late and owed the administration fee.
“We didn’t receive the first notice, so they charged a $45 admin fee, so for a toll that was originally $7.95, it was $52.95,” Franks said. “I had two trucks, so double that for one use.”
That’s too expensive for her company, Franks said, and their drivers were instructed to use the toll bridge sparingly.
“We don’t use toll roads every day,” Franks said. “If we were forced to, it would not be economically feasible, but we are glad to have the option in the summer months when we have construction jobs on beach areas because our guys aren’t on vacation; they are in a time crunch.”
According to a spokeswoman at the Beach Express billing office who declined to give her name, the administrative fees are part of the structure of the plan for those not signed up through the website. If an automobile that is not registered comes through, a photo is taken of the tag and that generates an invoice to the person registered to that tag.
“An invoice that people receive is when they don’t set up an account of any kind,” the spokesperson said. “If they choose to not set up an account and then use the express lane, a bill will be sent to the registered owner of that plate. That will be $2.95 per pass-through, plus the $5 admin fee.”
Administration fees are charged monthly, so if you use the lane 10 times in one month you’d be invoiced for $29.50 plus the $5 fee.
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