The first time I saw the envelope, I thought it said “FOOT” in the upper left corner. It didn’t make much sense, especially with a picture of the state of Florida draped around it.
But then I saw The words “TOLL ENFORCEMENT INVOICE … PLEASE OPEN IMMEDIATELY” emblazoned across the envelope and knew, almost like someone who could actually read, that this wasn’t about feet at all. That “FOOT” was actually “FDOT” spelled in a fancy, hard-to-read font, and it didn’t take me six years of high school to know the Florida Department of Transportation was coming after us.
My wife, Beth, had taken a couple of the kids to Disney just weeks earlier and I suspected this might have been when she earned FOOT’s wrath. Tearing the envelope open, my suspicions were confirmed: My lovely wife was a traffic scofflaw! Right there on the paper was a grainy photo of her car, or one of the 36,238 others just like it traveling across the Southeast at any given moment. I couldn’t really make out the license plate number from the photo, but FOOT declared it was indeed her car and they wanted $3.25 immediately.
So that was a few weeks ago. Yesterday we got another letter from FOOT, still whining about that $3.25. I mean, geez Florida, get a job! Is it really worth all this trouble for less than half of what any one of your jillion visitors would pay for a kiddie bottle of water at Disney World? Can’t we just call it even and say you’ve screwed us, we screwed you and we’re cool? We’ve learned our lesson and will be extra careful next time we’re driving along one of your insanely complex turnpikes or toll roads? Maybe it would be smart for you to set up a bucket in outbound lanes at the state line so we can sling change out the window at 85 mph to cover any incidentals.
Somehow I doubt FOOT is going to forget its $3.25, though. Florida reminds me of the paperboy in the ’80s John Cusack cult classic “Better Off Dead,” who relentlessly chases the main character throughout the movie screaming, “I want my two dollars!”
There’s some vaguely threatening language on the collection letter about having a “Vehicle Registration Stop removed for failure to pay my tolls,” but I’m not sure they can nail us across state lines. But who knows how powerful FOOT has become over the years.
It all seems like a lot to catch one person who, by the way, paid several tolls driving to Disney and back, but may have — and we’ve got to take FOOT’s word on this — accidentally missed one. And while I’m fearful of what FOOT may have in store for us should we continue to have other things to do besides send them $3.25, this letter actually got me thinking more about the trouble we’ll soon be facing right here in River City as we erect our own toll road.
Was this letter a glimpse into the future when the Alabama Department of Transportation’s (ALDOT) Toll Recovery Unit (TRU) is hounding us all to death over blown tolls on the coming-to-a-century-near-you Mobile River Bridge? If you weren’t one of the people already howling about ALDOT’s plans to impose a $3 – $6 toll on the new I-10 bridge, you probably are after reading this sentence. Yes, $3 – $6 every time you want to drive to one side of Mobile Bay or the other. That’s as much as $12 round trip for you non-math majors. Crunch the numbers a little more and if you’re a five-day-a-week round-tripper, you could pay as much as $3,120 a year in tolls!
I have always been a proponent of building a bridge over the river, primarily because it will finally rectify the idiocy of putting an 85-degree turn on our part of I-10 at the west end of the Wallace Tunnel. This miracle of engineering not only makes drivers rapidly slow from 80 mph to 45 mph, creating massive backups, but also causes plenty of wrecks as people come out of the tunnel heading west and occasionally makes 18-wheelers fall over.
The U.S. Department of Transportation and the State of Alabama owe us this fix and have for decades. But now they want to cheap out and place a toll on the new bridge. That wouldn’t even be so bad if it weren’t such an unreasonably high toll.
The ALDOT folks are trying to ease our pain by claiming it won’t be THAT bad if you don’t use the whole span from Spanish Fort to Virginia Street. You can save money by getting off on the Causeway, for example. So we’re supposed to take solace in the massive clogging of what was once the only clever way to get across the bay when the Jubilee Parkway is covered with wrecked cars and overturned cattle trucks?
Leave it to government to precisely 180 the entire reason this bridge was supposedly being built in the first place: to make our lives easier. For decades we’ve lived with this “choke point” on I-10 and were told it would be fixed. Lagniappe started publishing 17 years ago and it was an old conversation back then. So now that it actually looks like construction could begin, excessive tolls are going to force people to immediately begin thinking about ways to avoid the bridge.
It makes perfect sense.
Mobile isn’t the Eastern Seaboard or the Orlando-to-Miami corridor. We’re not used to paying tolls, tipping 30 percent or buying $15 pints of beer. Our leaders can rest assured people here will simply make fewer trips across the bay versus paying high tolls. Thinking about going to dinner across the bay? “Nah, let’s just stay over here. I don’t want to pay $12 in tolls or die of starvation in the Bankhead Tunnel while listening to all the people from Louisiana honk their horns.”
Will we have to make up for those out-of-towners who zoom over our new bridge and somehow or other don’t pay their tolls? What will happen when they get threatening letters from TRU looking for six bucks? Maybe those travelers will gladly scratch a check or pay online, but I’m guessing most of them will ball up those collection letters and toss them into the circular filing cabinet.
I’m still in favor of the bridge as long as the first order of business is alleviating traffic congestion, not figuring out how to exact even more money from people who just got a big, fat gas tax hike to pay for new roads and bridges. Keep your eye on the ball, bridge builders, or we’ll all pay the toll when this thing is a bust.
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