NTTA spends at least $35 million in staff salaries and postage to administer its billing system.
By DAVE LIEBER
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
As the North Texas Tollway Authority creeps more and more into our lives, drivers continue to have fits over steep fees levied when toll bills aren’t paid on time.
Apparently, the NTTA takes the word authority in its title quite seriously. It continues to charge customers who missed a few dollars in toll payments many hundreds of dollars in fines and fees. Some motorists say they never received the original bills.
State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, says she has seen enough of what she calls "exorbitant" penalties. She says the $11 million in penalties collected from drivers since last year is the authority’s way of making up for lost revenue.
"It’s gotten out of hand," Nelson says. "What really bothers me is this is not supposed to be a revenue source for the NTTA. A fine should be a reminder that you need to pay for the tolls. But $11 million? That’s a lot of fines."
The authority says it also spent $35 million in staff salaries and postage to administer its billing system.
Nelson plans to hit the problem head-on in the Legislature: "The way we set it up, I’m not sure we didn’t give them too much authority. We need to go back and consider more oversight."
More authority over the authority. That comes as welcome news to drivers who say they’ve been burned.
For Star-Telegram readers who don’t travel east of Tarrant County very often, let me explain. Drivers who use toll roads in Dallas, Denton and Collin counties are encouraged to buy TollTags to hang on their windshield. Tags are read electronically, and the driver’s account is debited.
For those without a tag, the authority photographs their license plate and then mails a bill at a higher rate to the car’s registered owner. The authority is phasing out toll booths where cash is accepted and building roads with few booths.
If a toll-road scofflaw goes too long without paying, the case is referred to a justice of the peace (5,295 cases this year). In the end, an unpaid 45-cent toll can cost hundreds of dollars with added court costs. Geoff Hartford of Denton says a $3.17 toll charge cost him $139 in payments to a collection agency. He was charged with five late payment violations at $25 each.
"They sent the invoice to my old address in Argyle," he says.
The NTTA says that the invoices are sent to the listed address in government records and that the vehicle’s owner is responsible for updating the registration.
Charles Evans says he received a bill for $518 for about $18 in tolls. Two employees told him that if he didn’t pay the bill, he could be arrested, he said. Then the NTTA agreed to settle for $187. But when he went to the NTTA’s Web site to buy a TollTag, he found that if he bought a tag he could pay the $18 and clear his account.
"Their whole billing, fee and collection processes almost seem illegal to me," he says.
The authority changed its policy on negotiated settlements, but its computer system still asks customers to sign up for the old violation enforcement agreement. The NTTA says it is "currently working to correct" the problem.
Robert J. Tilka of Keller has complained to Nelson. He says the authority offered to cut his bill from $518 to $150.
"It’s like organized crime," Tilka says "It is a total money grab on the citizens of Texas, in my mind. . . . Is there not a way to get people fired from the board? . . . What is the best way to dispute this government agency?"
The NTTA declined to comment on Tilka’s remarks except to say public comment is always welcome.
The NTTA says its board "accepts comments from the public at all posted meetings." (Visit www.ntta.org to learn more.)
In September, tolls on the Dallas North Tollway and President George Bush Turnpike were raised 32 percent. The authority is trying to meet financial commitments, unify its system and respond to economic conditions, spokeswoman Sherita Coffelt says.
Last year, the authority oversaw the sale of $5 billion in bonds for refinancing debt and funding construction. This year the authority issued $1.2 billion in bonds.
The authority says it intends to revisit its fees and penalty policies at a meeting in November.
Former Fort Worth Mayor Ken Barr, who was appointed to the NTTA board last year, said he’s aware that the system has problems and is confident that the board will address them in the next few weeks.
"I think we need to take a very hard look at the authority’s procedures," he said, adding that it’s important to collect all tolls.
"It is very frustrating to try to collect from everyone and have a lot of people who would appear to purposely avoid paying," he said. "We’ve got an obligation to regular users to collect from everybody. But that’s extremely difficult to do."
NTTA Executive Director Allen Clemson says on the authority’s Web site: "The NTTA realizes that mistakes happen, confusion occurs or invoices are overlooked. That’s why we will waive 67 percent of administrative fees incurred if any violator takes care of the balance before the outstanding invoice is transferred to the collection agency.
"The purpose of administrative fees is to help pay for the cost of collection. They are not considered an additional revenue stream." But Nelson disagrees. She says that when she has questioned the NTTA, "they’ve been very defensive."
The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.
Watchdog alert Nelson needs ammunition to take on the authority. Send ideas, stories and comments to Jane.Nelson@senate.state.tx.us or Senator Jane Nelson, P.O. Box 12068, Austin, TX 78711.
About the NTTA The North Texas Tollway Authority is authorized to acquire, construct, maintain, repair and operate turnpike projects in North Texas.
The governing board’s members are Chairman Paul N. Wageman, Vice Chairman Victor Vandergriff and directors Kenneth Barr, Gary Base, Bob Day, David Denison, Michael Nowels, Bob Shepard and Alan E. Sims.
NTTA customer service: 972-818-NTTA (6882); www.ntta.org
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