Tuesday, July 14, 2009

$3.2 million in tolls produces $58.4 million in fines for the toll tax bureaucracy

TxDOT may forgive tens of millions in toll fines

Proposed 'amnesty' would offer forgiveness of most accummulated fees and fines, but scofflaws would have to pay the overdue tolls and get a TxTag.

rear window taxtag


By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2009

Central Texas toll scofflaws could get a pass on paying much of $56.1 million in late fees and fines under a still-in-the-works "amnesty" policy set for a vote July 30 by the Texas Transportation Commission.

The partial break on the surcharges, which can reach almost $450 per toll, probably would be tied to nonpayers' signing up for a TxTag, the electronic device affixed to windshields that allows a motorist to be charged instantly for tolls. The tardy tolls would still be due in full.

On Monday, Texas Department of Transportation officials were not yet ready to reveal the exact extent of the fine discounts under the amnesty.

Mark Tomlinson, TxDOT's turnpike division director, said that nonpayers would be asked to pay only a "small percentage" of the accumulated fees and fines. Experience with other toll agencies has shown that it takes a substantial reduction to entice violators to come forward, Tomlinson said. And he said the agency already offers nonpayers 50 percent off fees if they pay their tolls in full and sign up for a TxTag.

The amnesty period, which would apply to TxDOT's four Austin tollways and one in Tyler, would last one to two months, officials said.
According to TxDOT, 140,000 "accounts" — individual vehicle owners — have failed to pay $2.1 million in toll charges, for a total of $3.2 million in unpaid tolls. The potential fees and fines associated with those charges, the amount subject to the amnesty: $58.4 million.

Those figures include the Tyler toll road, which has about $60,000 of unpaid tolls and $2.3 million in pending fees and fines.
TxDOT's uncollected money is overwhelmingly from the Central Texas toll roads.

Tomlinson said the agency probably would begin referring some of the cases, those involving chronic nonpayers, to local justice of the peace courts shortly after the amnesty period ends. What about people who might assume that yet another amnesty is down the road and continue to ignore toll bills?

"It would be an absolute mistake for anyone to think in those terms," Tomlinson said. "Our administration has made it absolutely clear that this will be a one-time offer."

The first three of TxDOT's four Austin-area toll roads — Loop 1, Texas 45 North and Texas 130 — opened in November 2006, and the agency began charging motorists in January 2007. The first violators were eligible for referral to court almost two years ago.

TxDOT's other area road, Texas 45 Southeast, which opened this spring, began charging customers only last month and thus would not yet have any violators teed up for a court appearance.

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which opened Austin's fifth toll road, 183-A, in March 2007, began justice of the peace referrals in January and so far has taken 47 of its worst offenders to court.

Why has it taken so long for TxDOT to begin using the court system for unpaid tolls?

Spokeswoman Karen Amacker said the agency focused initially on its invoicing and collections efforts, which are handled by an outside contractor, the Washington Group, and then on helping the mobility authority begin referring toll cases to court. In addition, she said, TxDOT has to work with several justice of the peace offices — rather than just one, as the mobility authority does — because its 66 miles of Central Texas toll roads extend over a much larger area.

In addition, Tomlinson said, "We've tried to operate with the philosophy of making good toll-paying customers, and we've tried to avoid having to take big violation fees. Certainly, taking people to court is the last resort."

TxDOT's turnpike division has fewer than 40 employees and has seen significant turnover at the top over the past year or so. Tomlinson replaced longtime tollway chief Phil Russell about a year ago at roughly the same time as toll operations director David Powell left for a private sector job. Powell's position has not been filled.
In addition, TxDOT has undergone a tumultuous two years because of a $1.1 billion accounting error and opposition to its use of private toll road leases, creating an inauspicious political environment for taking citizens to court over unpaid tolls.
The fees and fines for a single toll can be substantial. People who go through a tolling point on a TxDOT road without a TxTag or without stopping to pay with cash would get two invoices within 45 days, each carrying a $1 administrative fee. Failure to pay after 75 days raises the fee to $5. Then at day 112 the unpaid toll goes to a collection agency, and the fee jumps to $25.

Going to a justice of the peace court, which would occur at the 200-day mark when TxDOT begins to refer unpaid tolls, could cost a nonpayer almost $450 for each toll.

bwear@statesman.com, 445-3698

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