Confessions of an 80-cent Tax Scofflaw

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Just spent several minutes paying 80 cents by credit card to the Illinois Tollway for an unpaid toll on the way to O'Hare Airport after Christmas.

To all those who think that toll roads are a good idea for Memphis, please think again. The impulse to get other people to pay a share of our taxes is understandable. But there are unintended consequences, as this little jaunt illustrates.

Interstate 294 around Chicago is a toll road that is sometimes a faster option than Interstate 94, which is "free" but goes through the city. There are manned and unmanned stations every few miles. Regular drivers flash an "I Pass" and speed right through. At manned stations, you can fork over your money to an attendant, who will make change and maybe even give you directions. At unmanned stations, including the last one before the airport, drivers must pay the exact amount, which is 80 cents. Bills are not accepted.

I was alone and driving a rental and had exhausted my supply of change, plus a dime borrowed from the guy in the car behind me, at the previous unmanned station, where the toll was 30 cents. I was cutting my flight connection close and would gladly have paid $1 or even $5 to the Land of Lincoln, but no way. Coins only. Get out of the car and hit up a stranger for 80 cents. Or speed through and pay later, which I did.

To do that, you go to Illinois Tollway's website, which is not to be confused with the Illinois tollroad website, which is a collection of ads and links to "how to" sites.

Then you fill out your information, complete five steps, and your card is charged 80 cents. If you don't do this within seven days of the violation, the cost can be as much as $20.

This may not be the most aggravating government hassle of the season but it's close. The lesson is that the fine for minor motor vehicle violations — tolls, speeding tickets, parking tickets — is often only part of the story. Which is one reason why I don't like the idea of privatizing parking meters in downtown. The lack of a dime can get you a $20 parking ticket, and if you pile up three of those you get a bigger fine and/or a day in court. I prefer the present system with its inefficiencies. A toll station on Interstate 55 at the Mississippi line or on the Arkansas side of the Interstate 40 bridge might seem like a good idea until you're the one getting stuck in a traffic jam or fined $20 for want of 50 cents.

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