Patti Brandt Burgess: Dear Valued Customer: Pay up

Patti Brandt Burgess

I got a strange thing in the mail a couple of weeks ago.

It was a bill from the Delaware Department of Transportation, also known as DelDOT, for $5.60.

I apparently owed them some money for traveling on a toll road that looked deceptively like a regular road, but was actually using the state's new All Electronic Tolling (AET) System.

I guess this is where I would normally insert an Orwellian Big Brother reference, but by now haven't we all gotten used to being electronically observed, monitored or accessed in some way?

They had a picture of my cayenne red Forester. Even though there are about a million of them — at least up here, there are — I knew it was mine by the 'Dune Diva' sticker on the back.

I could have tried appealing the toll, but the sticker pretty much sealed the deal.

The bill took me by surprise. Had I blown through a toll booth without paying? How is that even possible? I didn't bust any gates. If I had I'm sure I would have had the Delaware State Police on my tail in a big hurry.

We were in Delaware on U.S. Route 301 for less than 40 miles. The $636 million toll road opened in January and I remember thinking how nice it was. There was hardly any traffic on a Saturday when every other highway we traveled was nearly bumper to bumper.

I did wonder how they paid for it. Now I know.

And why didn't Ernie get a bill? We were driving separate vehicles, having just picked up a 1996 Volvo from Vineland, New Jersey, and were heading to the nation's capital. He was just ahead of me.

I guess if you live in Delaware — and several other states — you can get an E-ZPass and travel from Maine to Illinois or south to Florida without having to stop at a pesky toll booth. Drivers pass electronic readers and zap your debit card — or take your picture and send you a bill.

Visitors to the state get a nice little letter when they get home. After the "Dear Valued Customer" salutation, I was very politely thanked for using their new AET system. Does it matter that I didn't know I was using the AET system?

I paid the bill last week. In a sea of car notes and house payments and medical bills and ridiculously high insurance costs, it was the one that hurt the least.

So what would happen if I didn't pay it? The nice letter they sent me said it would cost me extra penalties and fines if I chose to ignore it. That would include a $25 administration fee, a $10 State Fire Prevention Commission Volunteer Ambulance Company Fund fee, a $15 Fund to Combat Violent Crimes fee, a $25 civil penalty and a $12.50 civil penalty surcharge for a total of $87.50.

Wowza.

I drove through Georgia once where the speed limit was 65 and the highway was outfitted with cameras every few miles. I was convinced that I triggered every single camera and when I got home I was going to get a bunch of speeding tickets in the mail.

They never came. Since then, of course, mass government surveillance tactics ala "Nineteen Eighty-Four" have greatly improved.

Reach staff writer Patti Brandt Burgess at pburgess@record-eagle.com.