One sunny day, I took the Express Toll for some errant reason, most likely to let my hair fly in the wind and to avoid increased stress levels due to traffic. I knew I had to pay. I’ve driven the Express Toll to distant DIA many times and I’m well aware of the rates required for unfettered access to the open road with zero traffic and zero dickheads clogging the fast lane.

Like clockwork, a few weeks later, I received a bill for the outstanding amount. I paid it and went about my banal life existence. Then, not more than a week later, I received another letter from a collections agency telling me I owed $115 in debt collections for tolls that were never paid. I had not seen the letter (I did just move). But how did I owe so much when most of the tolls are $4-$20 depending on the distance you drove? 

Since the crotchety debt collection letter threatened to take my first born child and send me to court for not paying, I called them. Turns out, Colorado uses a debt collection mill to process all of their outstanding tickets. Lawyers are one thing, but debt collectors might be next to insurance companies on the totem pole of shittiest people to walk this earth. 

After flirting with the auto-operator, I finally got through to a lady who read from a script about my options. “Everything I say will be used as part of the process to collect the debt.” Not sure what that means but as someone who’s been in a good amount of lawsuits, it’s basically a way for the debt collector to protect themselves should they actually go to court and not just scare you into paying your bill. 

I asked the unenthused lady what my original toll fees were before penalties and attorney rates. $14.42. Yes, you read that correctly: $14.42. They had added more than $100 in fees and penalties to my ticket. That’s eight times the original ticket. When I asked her how they get away with such exuberant and extortive penalties on such a small toll rate, she promptly, by the script, told me that today she could do a one time settlement of $37.50. What happened to the other $77.50? The debt collection isn’t a non-profit, so how do they just negotiate against themselves by dropping the ticket down 67%! It’s because their negotiation tactic is to threaten your financial existence with a lawsuit through weekly letter to your mailbox, then pull back to a lesser amount that is still 2.5x the original amount. 

Now for the people who might say, well, you didn’t pay your ticket and therefore you deserve these fees, I get that. If I procrastinate, which I do often, I agree to paying fees or fines — being civil. I do not agree that the fees should be eight times the original amount. 

It’s not only unconscionable but should a denizen of the great state of Colorado stumble upon an attorney’s letter threatening litigation unless the sum of $114 is paid, that expense could greatly affect someone’s financial fluidity. A study from Ferguson, Missouri, the infamous epicenter of the MIchael Brown shooting, looked into why the town was mostly in poverty. What it found is that most people were financially insolvent not due to liberal spending habits but rather small fees over time on minor traffic infringements were hindering opportunities for people to get ahead in life. 

Most people are law abiding citizens, unaware that they might have an outstanding balance or missed a piece of email. After all, have you seen the shitshow that’s USPS these days? Considering most people follow the rules, they’ll pay their outstanding balance when given notice and proper amounts of time. Tacking $100 in fees won’t help the situation. If anything, it will only create more problems down the road while putting more money in the pockets of an attorney who runs a collections mill. To the counties that manage E-470 — Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, along with Aurora, Brighton, Commerce City, Parker and Thornton — you can do better.