There I was.
Returning from Dulles Airport to go spend the night at my cousin’s place.
Got off the Dulles Toll Road to get onto the Fairfax County Parkway.
Approached the toll booth.
Didn’t have EZ Pass.
Got into the cash lane.
It was a $1 toll.
I had a one dollar bill.
I had a credit card.
But no coins.
What to do?
The sign said — if trouble, call this number.
I called the number.
It was after 9:30 at night.
Taped message said it was after hours and nobody was there to answer the phone.
There was no human in the booth.
There was no booth — that I could see.
There was no gate.
Only a red light screaming — stop.
And a camera.
What to do?
Blew through it.
Headed to my cousin’s house.
And called the number in the morning.
The woman who answered was very cordial.
She explained to me that I was not alone.
In fact, her job was to answer these calls and let people pay the toll with a credit card.
Great, I said. Pulled out my credit card.
And the woman said — that will be $1 for the toll.
And a $6 dollar administrative fee.
For a total of $7.
Wait a second.
Well, it’s a good thing you called today, she reassured me.
If I had waited 48 hours, she said, the administrative fee would be $12.50.
If I had waited 30 days, it would be $25.00.
Then it escalates to $75. Then a court summons.
“A lot of people complain about it,” she tells me. “But you are one of the lucky ones. Only $7.”
I thank her and ring up Kimberly Gibbs, a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates the Dulles Toll Road.
After some back and forth, Gibbs tells me that there are 18 exit ramps with tolls along the Dulles Toll Road.
She says that had I been at my exit ramp between 5:30 am and 9:30 pm, there would have been a human being to take my dollar bill or my credit card.
“After those times, traffic drops dramatically on the Dulles Toll Road,” Gibbs said. “Passengers travelling to and from Dulles International airport should use the Dulles Access Highway, which has no tolls and provides an uninterrupted route between the airport and the beltway.”
I’m not exactly sure how I got onto the toll road, I said, but it happened. And there I was stuck with no means to pay a $1 toll.
And got hit with a $6 penalty.
As it turns out, I am not alone.
Gibbs says there are more than 2.5 million users of the Dulles Toll Road every week, with a violation rate on the toll road of 1.6 percent.
And after filing a Freedom of Information Act request with the Virginia Department of Transportation, I get a chart that shows in the last twelve months there have been 311,471 violations with more than $2 million in “administrative fees” received.
A day or so passes and I get a call from Gibbs.
Gibbs says that the airport authority wants to refund me my $6 “administrative fee.”
Great I said.
“Don’t think you’re special,” she says. “It’s a courtesy refund we give to people in your position.”