Jul 27 2011
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:
- 7 years and $339 later, E-470 takes its toll on Aurora woman
- E-470 billing nightmare leaves driver fighting mad
- Cashless E-470 takes on rental-car drivers in the form of fines
- Billed thousands, woman says E-470 ‘committing highway robbery’
- Colorado toll road stories