"This is highway robbery. This is bureaucracy at its worst. I’ll never use that road again."
By GORDON DICKSON
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
HURST — More North Texans are coming forward with complaints that a collection agency hired by the Texas Department of Transportation is unfairly demanding large past-due payments for driving on the Texas 121 toll road in Denton and Collin counties.
"This is highway robbery," said Brian Wilson of Hurst, who two weeks ago received a bill for $76.60 for a $1.60 toll he incurred on a boating trip to Lake Texoma in June 2007. "This is bureaucracy at its worst. I’ll never use that road again."
Texas 121 is the region’s first all-electronic toll road.Toll payments can be made either by an automatic account such as a TollTag or by standard mail. For those paying by mail, the common practice is to wait until the Transportation Department’s Texas Tollways office sends a bill and then send a payment.
But that system doesn’t work when the bill gets mailed to the wrong address.
On Monday, the Star-Telegram published a story about Norma Bartholomew of Fort Worth, who had been contacted by a collection agency for a past-due toll that the Transportation Department had sent to an address where she hasn’t lived since 2004.
She had traveled on the road in February 2007, but never received the original bill for $1.90 in tolls, and a few weeks ago was shocked to learn that the state now wanted $109.90, including $100 in fees.
A Transportation Department official said it was a rare incident. The woman’s account was eventually cleared after she lodged complaints with the Texas Tollways office and state elected leaders.
But since then, four other readers have contacted the Star-Telegram to complain that the Transportation Department sent bills to their old addresses and — in all but one case — turned them over to a collection agency, too.
In each case, the readers felt the Transportation Department ought to know their correct address. All said they had submitted address changes to the department after moving, and are currently receiving auto registration renewal notices in the mail.
Wilson and his wife, Sharilyn, traveled on Texas 121 in June 2007, using their pickup to tow the family boat to Lake Texoma.
A few weeks after the vacation, they received — and promptly paid — a bill for $3.40 in tolls, charged to the account of their boat trailer.
But at the time they didn’t realize that the camera system on the road had captured not only an image of the license number on their trailer, but also on their pickup. While the bill for the boat trailer toll was sent to their current address, the toll for the pickup — another $1.60 — was sent to Brian Wilson’s old address. Wilson said he never saw the original pickup bill.
Two weeks ago, Wilson opened his mail and found a collection letter demanding $76.60 for that unpaid toll.
Wilson called the Texas Tollways customer service line, but the call taker was unsympathetic, he said. The call taker did, however, offer to cut the bill almost in half to $39, if Wilson would agree to open a TxTag account so that his tolls could be collected automatically.
Wilson reluctantly agreed, even though opening the TxTag account cost him an additional $20, so he paid the $59 to avoid letting the whole affair smudge his credit rating.
But now he wants his money back. "I felt like my arm was put behind my back and twisted," he said during an interview at his home, where the unused TxTag remains in its envelope on his kitchen counter.
In addition to Wilson, the Star-Telegram also spoke to or exchanged e-mails with:
Richard LaChance of Fort Worth, who received a collection notice for nearly $700. He agreed to open a TxTag account in exchange for cutting the late fees in half. But he later called again to complain about the original toll bills, which were mailed to an address he hadn’t used in nearly five years, and persuaded Texas Tollways to rescind the charges. "The whole time I was wondering how many other people were treated this way," he wrote.
Steven Maas of Fort Worth, who was billed for $125 in fees. Maas has since signed up for a TollTag, another form of automatic toll collection operated by the North Texas Tollway Authority, to prevent the problem in future transactions. But Texas Tollways considers the TollTag a competitor to its TxTag and won’t waive his fees.
When Maas complained to Texas Tollways, a call taker confirmed that his original toll bills had been returned to the Austin office, stamped "Return to sender." But apparently no one investigated whether his address had changed.
"Yet they still invoked . . . the fees. That’s just ludicrous and completely preying on people."
Joseph Rivera, a former Fort Worth resident now living in Plano, who was told he owes $12 for a 90-cent toll accrued on Texas 121 on Christmas Day 2007. The bill was originally sent to his old Fort Worth address, where he hasn’t lived in nearly three years. "When I talked to them they were very standoffish," he said.
Don’t let it linger
Transportation Department officials say they’ll work with people on a case-by-case basis, and remove fees deemed improper. But spokesman Christopher Lippincott urged motorists who have used the Texas 121 toll road to avoid problems now by updating their vehicle registration information, rather than waiting for a collection agency to find them.
"There is no substitute for Texas drivers ensuring that their registration information is correct and up-to-date," he said.
What you can do
Since April 4, tolls collected electronically on Texas 121 in Denton and Collin counties are billed through the North Texas Tollway Authority, not the Transportation Department. However, there is still the potential for bills being sent to an old address, because the tollway authority gets its vehicle registration data from the Transportation Department.
Steps to take to avoid getting slapped with late fees:
Visit your county tax office and make sure your vehicle registration information is current. Check all three address fields in the database: the vehicle owner’s address, the renewal recipient address and the vehicle location address.
Call the Transportation Department’s vehicle titles and registration division regional office. In the Fort Worth area, call 817-649-5938.
If you suspect you owe a toll but haven’t received a bill, call the Texas Tollways customer service line toll-free at 888-468-9824 and ask for your vehicle information.
If you believe you’ve been erroneously charged late fees and the call-taker won’t budge, ask to speak with a supervisor. If that doesn’t work, consider complaining to a state senator or representative.
Car owners are responsible for tolls, even if the toll is accrued by someone else. However, if you get a bill for tolls on a car that was sold or stolen, you may download a toll violation defense form at www.gotxtag.com/violation.
Consider signing up for a TollTag, a windshield-mounted transponder that makes it possible to pay tolls automatically. TollTag accounts are usually backed by a credit card. The North Texas Tollway Authority administers the accounts and may be reached at www.ntta.org or toll-free at 877-991-0033.
The Transportation Department offers a TxTag, which is similar to a TollTag. For information visit www.txdot.gov or call toll-free 888-468-9824. TollTags and TxTags work on tolls roads in Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin and Houston.
GORDON DICKSON, 817-685-3816
© 2008, Fort Worth Star-Telegram: www.star-telegram.com
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