Tuesday, February 05, 2008

TxTag: Forging the way for Dallas commuters

Who altered check to toll road operator?


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2008

Officials at TxTag, the operators of the new Texas 121 North toll road from the Denton-Dallas county line northeast into Carrollton, announced in January that they were getting tougher "to get people to pay their past-due bills."

Brian and Debbie Gibbs know just what the state-run collection department means.

They received a bill from the Texas Tollways Customer Service Center for $5.60. But the bill was confusing. (At first, a highway department employee helping The Watchdog didn't understand it either.) The couple understood that they might owe $2.60 for tolls, but what were the other $3 in charges?

The Gibbses didn't think they owed the extra $3. So they sent a check for $2.60.

That's when something out of the ordinary happened.

It appears that somebody at TxTag changed the amount on the Gibbses' check from $2.60 to $5.60 to cover the extra $3.

The Gibbses got a copy of the deposited check from their bank and compared it with the carbon copy of the check in their checkbook. The numeral 2 in $2.60 was changed to a 5, and the "two" in the written-out amount was also altered to a five.

Did a TxTag clerk alter the check to cover the total fee?

Brian Gibbs called TxTag and spoke to an employee who told him that it did look like somebody had altered the check. The employee promised to call back but never did, Gibbs said.

So Gibbs contacted The Watchdog, who took the evidence to the Texas Department of Transportation.

"We are going to make sure that we have taken due diligence to investigate it properly and find out what happened, and see what the consequences are, if there are any," Gabriela Garcia said. "We don't want to jump to conclusions.

"Nobody went to the cash register and pulled out $3 and pocketed $3. It was just straight paperwork that was processed. Nobody benefited, as far as we can see, initially, if that, in fact, did happen."

Gibbs got tagged on trips between Old Denton Road and the Denton Tap Road toll exit plazas. He said he didn't understand that he was on a toll road.

He saw a sign but didn't see any toll booths.

"It doesn't even give you a clue that you're coming to the tollway, and there's no place to pay," he says.

That has caused confusion for a lot of people. Texas 121 North is one of the first electronic toll roads in the nation. There are no people in booths -- indeed no booths and no place to pay.

If you set up a TxTag account, you pay slightly lower rates each time you owe a toll, and the money is debited automatically.

If you don't have a TxTag, you get a monthly invoice like Gibbs got.

And if you don't realize how many times you traveled on a toll road, and if you don't recognize the "invoice fee" charged to cover TxTag's expenses, then, like the Gibbses, you might question some of the charges on the invoice and try not to pay them.

The Gibbses now know why they owed $5.60. But they still want an answer for the check alteration.

Garcia of the highway department says the electronic toll road eliminates the stress of paying with change.

"You just drive on through and get a bill in the mail," she said.

The bill goes out to the owner of the car, indentified by the license plate photographed on the toll road.

Convenience or not, the Gibbses are not fans.

Altered check or not, he says of the toll-road system, "I think it's a big rip-off anyway."

News researcher Cathy Belcher contributed to this report.

I think it's a big rip-off anyway.

What is TxTag?

The year-old Texas 121 North toll road is operated by TxTag, a division of the Texas Department of Transportation. State officials have said they intend to turn the road over to the North Texas Tollway Authority.

Texas 121 has no booths or places to pay tolls. Users are sent monthly bills, which include a $1 processing fee, based on video images of their license plates. Car owners who set up a TxTag account pay less to use the road.

Different state toll tags work on most state toll roads. For example, a TxTag works on toll roads such as the President George Bush Turnpike in north Dallas.

A Texas 121 North map and toll rates can be found at www.texas121.org/pdf/tx121_map+rates.pdf.

For more information: www.texas121.org

Source: Texas Department of Transportation
The Watchdog column appears Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Dave Lieber, 817-685-3830

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