Los Angeles County firefighters were on their way to a colleague's funeral in October when their fire engine came to a toll booth on Route 73 in south Orange County.
They did what they usually do when they come upon a tollbooth--they ignored it.
A couple of weeks later, the engine company, based in Carson, received a letter from the toll road agency, telling them to pay not only the $5 toll, but a $47.50 fine. A camera set up to photograph toll cheats had caught them.
Capt. Bob Viers thought it was a mistake, so he called the toll road agency to ask that the fine be waived.
But the toll road representative insisted. "If the toll road was burning, we wouldn't be charging you," he recalled the worker saying.
Viers was dumbfounded.
"I can't believe this. It's an emergency vehicle and you're charging for it?" Viers said.
A supervisor offered to bump the fine down to $20, and when Viers still balked, the agency waived the penalty, charging him only the toll.
"OK, I'll pay it," he said, forking over his credit card number.
Frank Barbagallo, deputy director of toll compliance for Transportation Corridor Agencies, which operates a network of toll roads in Orange County, explained: "We eliminated the penalty and just asked him to pay the toll in light of the fact that they were attending a funeral."
The toll roads give a free ride to most law enforcement and emergency vehicles, but the Los Angeles County Fire Department is not on its pre-approved list, he said.
Because the fire engine was not responding to an emergency, they could not waive the toll.
"If they are going through as a matter of convenience, they must pay," he said. "We knew that there was no emergency because the lights weren't on. We could not see anything evident that they were in pursuit," he said.
The point is moot, Viers said. "We never drive on the freeway with lights on, otherwise we would cause more problems than we solve."
L.A. County Battalion Chief Bruce Arvizu also expressed disbelief.
"Normally on toll roads we just go through," he said. "There's got to be a way to let us use the toll road without dinging us for it."