Jul 27 2011

Denver’s Toll Roads for Dummies

Am I the only one who sees irony in the brown-and-white sign that proclaims Colorado as colorful? Still, it's better than the signage on the tollways near Denver.

I’m going to start with a story, and then all of you who know better can tell me how it could have turned out so much differently…

Last week, on the final day of our Twizzlers Landmark Summer vacation, we left Boulder, Colorado, headed for Rapid City, South Dakota.  If you look at a map, you’ll see that there is no fast + direct route, so we had to choose one over the other.  Hoping traffic would not be too bad, we opted to go slightly out of the way in order to travel on expressways rather than stoplight streets.

Part of our route was marked as a tollway on the map, and the GPS device also asked if we wanted to avoid the tollway.  But we were more concerned with getting on our way, and decided that the cost of a toll would be worth our while.

As we entered the Northwest Parkway, a sign indicated “Toll Plaza 5 miles ahead.”  It did not say how much the toll would be, so I had my wallet ready.  We’ve traveled toll roads in Chicago where you drop in coins every few miles, and in Pennsylvania where you pick up a ticket when you enter the tollway and pay when you leave it.  I was curious to see which system Denver used.

When we got to the toll plaza, we were confused to see that the cash lanes were closed by orange cones, so we had no choice but to go through the “GoPass” lanes.  We did not see anywhere that we could stop to pay our toll.

Because we were driving a vehicle that wasn’t our own (namely, the Twizzlers van), I immediately e-mailed my contact with Twizzlers to let her know what had just happened and that we fully intended the pay the toll.  We just had to figure out how.

She contacted the company in charge of the car, which indicated that we should log on to www.e-470.com to pay the toll.  I went to the site, put in the car’s license number, and got a message saying the plate wasn’t found.  I tried this for several days, and always got the same message.  Eventually, I thought maybe I needed to have an account before trying to pay the toll, so I registered online and tried again.  Still nothing.

Finally, I called the customer service number for E-470.  A very friendly woman attempted to help me, and explained that the system is a “license plate toll” system and that there should have been a sign indicating that upon entering the roadway.  (I honestly don’t remember if there was such a sign, but in any case, the phrase “license plate toll” would have meant absolutely nothing to me.)  What “license plate toll” actually means is that their system has no actual toll booths.  Instead, cameras take a picture of your license plate if you don’t have an automatic transponder in your car, and somehow they figure out where you live and send the bill to you.  If the car you are driving is yours, that is.

The agent told me that it works much more smoothly if you sign up for an account before traveling on the road.  I replied that it would be much easier to do so if there were any signs or markings warning visitors what to expect on the tollway, or even how to sign up for an account.  Apparently the tollway powers that be think that visitors will somehow just know how this works.

The nice woman on the phone, Agent 13 but I forget her name, asked which portion of the road we had driven.  When I explained that it was the section from Boulder to I-25, she told me that that portion of the road is the Northwest Parkway, a completely different system that is run in the same way, without physical toll collection points.

Despite the fact that I hadn’t driven on her road, she was able to pull up the license plate number and tell me the name of the rental company that it belonged to.  She could not, however, assist me in paying the toll because it was not from the E470 portion of the road.  Instead, she connected me to someone at the Northwest Parkway office, who was equally friendly.  I repeated the license number to her, and it did not turn up in her records at all.  This was four days after having traveled the road.  She suggested that I call back in a week, as it often takes some time for out-of-state license plates to show up in the system.  I have now made 6-8 attempts to pay the toll online, spent 15 minutes on the phone with agents, and still have not successfully paid the toll that will likely be $3.20.  I have to try back in a week and hope the plate is in the system at that point in time.

The Northwest Parkway website touts this as an upgrade:  “The Northwest Parkway has updated its business, you no longer have the ability to stop and pay for the toll.”  For those who live in the area and have transponders, this makes sense.  But for visitors to the area, the system is confusing and inefficient at best.

The bottom line for traveling Denver’s toll roads seems to be this:  Research the road before you travel on it.  If you’re driving your own vehicle, register ahead of time, or expect a bill in the mail after you get home.  If you’re driving a rental car, be fully aware of the charges you may incur from the rental company in addition to your toll.  Or simply avoid the toll roads.  At this point, I’m really wishing that’s what we would have done.

Have you driven on the Denver-area toll roads?  Do you have any words of wisdom for visitors to the area who may not be aware of how the system works?  Am I a complete dummy to have been so confused by it?

Update: I guess I’m not the only one with concerns about the way this road operates.  See these articles for more information:

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19 comments so far

19 Comments to “Denver’s Toll Roads for Dummies”

  1. Kara @ The Vacation Gals on 27 Jul 2011 at 8:26 pm

    I live in Colorado and have never heard of this! Granted, I am on the Western Slope — not the Front Range (Denver/Boulder/Colorado Springs).

    Honestly, what I got out of this story is that you are VERY VERY honest! I totally would have blown it off. I mean, really. It’s $3.20.

    Sure, if the Twizzlers peeps or the rental-car peeps had called me a month later and said *they* had gotten a bill for $3.20, and that I owed it to them, I would have written a check and sent it in the mail ASAP. (But really, do you think Twizzler or rental car company would send a bill for such a small amount? Waste of time.)

    It does sound like your “bill” has fallen through the cracks and you spent a lot of time trying to figure it out. Are you glad you have semi-solved the mystery? Or annoyed you spent too much time researching it? For me, time is money (as a freelancer and a mom w/ kids out of school, I don’t have time to hang on the phone for hours — did that for 3 hours w/ Comcast last week; no desire to get to that level of frustration again).

    Hope to hear how the story ends… if someone does get a bill for $3.20
    Kara @ The Vacation Gals´s last [type] ..Sandpearl Resort: A Clearwater Beach Vacation Review

  2. minnemom on 27 Jul 2011 at 8:41 pm

    Kara, the Twizzlers people had treated us so well on the trip that I really didn’t want to leave them holding the bill for something that was our choice. Time is money, but providing an example in honesty to my kids is worth both. And apparently I’m doing the right thing by trying to take care of this ASAP, as I received these two comments via Facebook from locals who read about the experience:

    “Gotcha, did they? We absolutely avoid these at all costs. Have heard bad things on the news since moved here.”

    and

    “We live very close to the toll road and never use it because we don’t want them to try to have to find us. It’s a nice road, but not very user friendly (unless you have a transponder). We could get to the airport really quickly if we used it!! Keep checking though because there have been horror stories of late fees (hundreds of dollars) when they couldn’t find the vehicle owner.”

  3. Thristhan on 28 Jul 2011 at 5:49 am

    I’ve not been to the States yet, but hopfully I would one day and I’m sure it’s going to take me at least a few months to see all the beautiful things there. Colorado is definitely one of the places that I would wanna visit. Have you been to Asia before? Or Malaysia in Particular?
    Thristhan´s last [type] ..Photo Of The Day: Durian in Malaysia

  4. Kara @ The Vacation Gals on 28 Jul 2011 at 9:09 am

    For sure, you have provided a service, Linda. Now *I* know the deal if I ever pass through these parts.

    I bet this system won’t last, if it’s as problematic as it sounds.

    And it sounds like they just don’t want to pay someone to stand there and collect $$!
    Kara @ The Vacation Gals´s last [type] ..Scentsy Travel Tin and Scent Pak Giveaway

  5. Marcus on 24 Jan 2012 at 3:04 pm

    kara,

    the problem with not worrying about the 3.20 is this. Apparently I had a bill for 3.20 for driving on the parkway. I was unaware of this as I never received a bill. Two years later I receive a letter from a collection company saying I owe 75 dollars and that I already have gigs on my credit and will recieve more fines and more gigs if I don’t pay. Such a bad system for $3.20 on toll charges.

  6. Marcus on 24 Jan 2012 at 3:06 pm

    It is also unfortunate that I wasn’t the only one to be duped. I am telling everyone to avoid Colorado at all costs….and this used to be one of my favorite states to visit:(

  7. Indigo on 06 Feb 2012 at 8:08 pm

    My daughter goes to Colorado State in Fort Collins. She drives her Oregon license-plated car on the toll roads near DIA every few months.

    Every few months we parents in Oregon get a bill in the mail from the toll company for a few bucks and we pay it. Pretty simple.

    A couple of times a year, we visit and rent a car. The rental company adds the tolls to our bill. No big deal.

    Mountain/mole hill.

  8. Marcus on 07 Feb 2012 at 3:47 pm

    Indigo,

    I agree with you, it is pretty simple. You get your bill and pay it. And that is what I would have done, if I ever recieved a bill.

    It is a system. And when you make a system you want it to work and be 100% effective. The problem with any system is when there is a breakdown in it. (nucleur reactors, space shuttles, ski lifts, etc, etc) Now, most systems we have created are very effective and fail very little…but from the brief time I have researched this road it appears to me that somewhere along the line there are a lot of breakdowns in the system.

    To penalize someone thousands of dollars and gig there credit so they may never be able to buy a house bc of a $3.20, i would say that is an unfortunate result of a lousy system…

    Well, as I now say “ski utah or nevada, lose your house in colorado!”

  9. Sherrill on 25 Feb 2012 at 11:28 am

    I traveled this road on vacation on Oct 4th, 2011. A few weeks later I got a bill, but it looked like junk mail, so I didn’t open it right away. A couple of weeks later, I got another one, so I opened and it was a bill with an additional fee, so I paid it (it was originally $3.70 and now $4.20). Then I got another bill, with even more fines added. I thought it just crossed in the mail with my payment and set it aside. Then, they sent me another bill with an additional $25 fine. I have sent them copies of my cancelled check showing I paid the bill and they cashed the check. Bills were coming faster that you could figure them out. They were confusing and did not seem to add up from one bill to the next.

    Nothing back from them except a letter saying they would waive the first $5 late fee. Nothing about all the other fees. I sent another letter to the governor and to the toll company. Now I have a bill from the collection agency for $50.75. All on a bill I have already PAID. They are threatening me with additional fines and non-renewal of my license. I do live in CO, so I don’t believe for one second they can mess with my license renewal, and I NOT pay extortion fees. I will not pay these all these late fees on a bill I ALREADY PAID!

    I do not live in Colorado, had no idea how their system works. I got on the road, thinking I would pay the fees at a toll booth, but there was no booth. I would have happily paid the fee at a booth, had I been able to find one. I was NOT trying to ditch a toll as they seem to be trying to imply I was doing. There was nothing that indicated how the fees could be paid. Since then a google search shows major problems with this road. Four months later, and I am still fighting this. Some people have had their original toll jacked up to thousands of dollars in late fees and fines. Looks like I am just another victim.

    I would advise everyone to steer clear of Colorado!

  10. Lisa on 04 May 2012 at 5:17 pm

    The toll system in Colorado (near the Denver airport) has certainly left me with a bad taste as well. Like Sherrill, I assumed (wrongly) that I would have the opportunity to pay. In addition to exhorbitant tolls there are the rental car company fees at $2.95/day -even when your car is in the hotel’s parking garage! ($42.05 total for 3 roundtrips to/from the airport to Colorado Springs) As so many have said, because they’re really isn’t very good signage, you don’t know what you’re getting yourself in to. Like Sherrill I was billed (on my credit card) and full month later there was another bill. I thought it surely must be a mistake, but apparently it was just the ‘system’ catching up with the billing. Unlike many toll roads, apparently if you stop off to buy lunch or contribute to Colorado’s economy through some retail therapy and then get back on the toll road, you pay all over again. Sorry Denver, won’t be doing that again. Not a good experience.

  11. Julie Cason on 10 May 2012 at 12:58 pm

    We just experienced the exact same thing on our drive from Louisville, CO (by Boulder) to I-76. Incurred $3.30 toll on NW Pkwy and $2.50 on e470. Absolutely NO warning signs b4 entering. Thank you for posting yr story so we know what to expect :-) We have driven over 70,000 miles in the last few years in our RV all over US and never seen anything as opaque and confusing.

  12. Sherrill on 10 May 2012 at 8:55 pm

    Just thought I’d post an update . . . I am still fighting this and am now being threatened with an additional $250 penalty (taking it over $300 now) and liens against my property, garnishment of wages, etc, etc. As it turns out . . . there are 2 separate companies doing the billing and as the representative told me, neither of them has any knowledge of what the other is doing.

    BUT, they never told me this until AFTER they sent me to collections. Over a $3.95 bill! There were actually 2 bills, I had paid one. But, since I had only taken the road one time and did not get on/off multiple times . . . just got on and drove to the end and got off, I would not have expected to receive multiple bills from multiple agencies, so I thought they were one and the same. I guess that explains why they never seemed to add up, but they should have explained you may receive separate billings.

    I am hoppin’ mad over this! Why didn’t they tell me that with my first letter where I sent them a copy of my cancelled check showing I had paid the bill . . . or even after the second letter? No, they wait until they have safely sent it on to collections (which they did within 2-3 months of me taking their stupid road)for even higher penalties for the state’s coffers. And, it is not as if I was ignoring them. I was sending them responses/copies of the check etc trying to get this cleared up and they didn’t respond until AFTER they sent it on.

    It is all falling on deaf ears. I can’t believe they can get away with this. I just sent Senator Talmadge (in charge of the state’s Department of Transportation Committee) a nice long letter (this makes the second letter to her office) with copies of everything and a check for the stupid $3.95, since it appears now that there were 2 different bills, asking her to put an end to this nonsense and make them remove the late fees and to clear my credit. It is criminal that they are allowed to practice such deceptive billing practices.

    Their bills need to CLEARLY state that you could be billed multiple times by multiple agencies for each trip on their roads. Apparently one company is in charge of part of the road and another for another part. If you cross that imaginary line . . . you get two bills!

    I NEVER want to step foot in that state again. At this point, I don’t even want to do business with any entity based in that state. I will just find other places from which to order my goods.

    I will be putting up another post on my blog soon about this as well . . . hoping to save others from this nightmare.

    Unfortunately . . . this saga continues . . .

  13. minnemom on 11 May 2012 at 7:08 pm

    Thanks for your reply, Julie. I appreciated knowing I’m not alone in having this happen.

  14. minnemom on 11 May 2012 at 7:09 pm

    Sherrill, that’s terrible! The communication and customer service here are awful. I hope the Senator’s office can help you (and others) with this problem.

  15. Julie Cason on 27 Jun 2012 at 1:02 pm

    I had another thought about this “system” after I got home and paid those darn toll bills….

    My biggest gripe is that we never were warned about the toll road or its collection system. We were simply funneled onto it. Everywhere else always gives you a “Last Exit Before Toll” warning, from my experience. And that’s what got me to thinking. Everywhere else is government run. THIS Colorado deal is privatized. They have NO incentive to warn you away because not only do they get to collect the toll, but they get those lovely service fees from unsuspecting tourists like us who don’t have a transponder.

    Something to consider if your local government wants to start privatizing everything…. That isn’t always the best idea.

  16. minnemom on 27 Jun 2012 at 1:32 pm

    Good point, Julie. No warnings, no chance to get out. Just a bill and a hassle.

  17. Robt. Ferguson on 26 Jan 2013 at 3:54 pm

    With the recent increase in tolls, a round trip from Highlands Ranch to DIA, is $30. That is an outrage. I travel the various roads across America, and this is the highest toll per mile in the US – by a long shot. The collection method is a modern marvel. Except when something goes wrong. Then all efforts to correct the problem, only makes it a hell of a lot worse. Operating as a quasi-governmental agency, their word is law – and don’t you forget it!

    Colorado would do well to post “Travel this toll road at your own peril” at every entrance.

  18. Julie on 04 May 2014 at 2:01 pm

    I just had the same situation driving from boulder to I-25. How bizarre! Glad you posted this so we know to expect a bill in the mail!

  19. Carole on 06 Dec 2014 at 3:35 pm

    oh no, this is the first time I ever used a toll road, I had wallet in hand, but nowhere to pay the toll… we were headed to tx, and did not want to go through co. with a big motorhome.. so turned onto toll hwy thinking we would pay when we got off…. still haven’t received a bill… 2 months later now… didn’t even know they might send one, except son in tx said they would…. we are on a fixed income, I DO NOT KNOW WHERE OR HOW TO PAY A TOLL… now what. Tx had a toll too I think…whaaatttt?????

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