Saturday, October 10, 2009

"Their whole billing, fee and collection processes almost seem illegal to me."

NTTA's late-fee collection has 'gotten out of hand,' state senator says


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2009

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.

Dave Lieber, 817-685-3830 Twitter@DaveLieber

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