Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"Thousands in fees for just a few bucks in overdue tolls."

Alarming fees for overdue tolls

Tough to enforce 4000 percent fee on late payments


Chris Willis
KXAN-TV (Austin)
Copyright 2010

AUSTIN (KXAN) - Even the steepest of fines, taxes, and credit-bureau charges have nothing on the Texas Department of Transportation.

The state of Texas is charging motorists a 4000 percent administrative fee for each toll they don’t pay after 112 days. Some motorists – even those with the proper tags – are finding themselves with thousands in fees for just a few bucks in overdue tolls.

In Central Texas, there are 150,000 motorists who owe $3 million in tolls. With that fee, the state of Texas could collect nearly $60 million from them.

As a matter of comparison, there's federal legislation right now in Washington to crack down on unscrupulous credit card companies who charge interest and fees around 30 percent.

To be fair, they've got to collect tolls to pay back the bonds they used to build these roads. And they did offer an amnesty program to give violators a break; only a handful of people took advantage of that amnesty program.

Now, people are running scared - and facing several thousands of dollars in toll road "adminstrative fees"

If you don't pay your federal income taxes, the IRS hits you with a 4-percent interest rate, and a 25-percent penalty after 5 months.

If you think that's too much.. you don't know what too much is.

"It's crazy," said motorist C.C. Lopez. "It's crazy.. I can't believe it."

Lopez owes more than $9,000 to TXDOT.

"I feel like I'm a criminal for driving the toll roads," she said.

Before you think Ms. Lopez one of those people who blows through the tolls without paying... she's not. She says she's always had a TXTAG and always paid.

But when she bought a new car in 2009, she took that TXTAG off the old car, and put it on the new one. That made it invalid, and jacked her bill to more than $9,000. She called TXTAG's customer service to work it out, and what did they tell her: Too bad. Pay it.

"I said, 'Well, I need to figure out how to fix this. They're like, 'Well, you can't.'"

(Editor's note: Clarification on $2500 below.)

Here's what 4000 percent looks like: If you go through 10 tolls, at 60 cents apiece, that's $6. And that's when the clock starts ticking. You'll get at least two letters in the mail, but if it's not paid in 112 days, that $6 dollars gets increased by $250. State law then allows that to increase to $2500 as misdemeanor offenses once those 10 late tolls (tried as individual cases) get to court.

To simplify: $25 per late toll, 10 late tolls, then when each gets to court - $250 per late toll. That's $2500 from $6 in late tolls.

"The fees are only there as an incentive to really get people to pay on time," said Mark Tomlinson, director of the turnpike authority for TXDOT.

He says by the time drivers get "administrative fees" in the 4000 percent range, they've already had ample time to pay their tolls - in other words, just under four months.

Some drivers can qualify for violation-conversion offers, and most can set up payment plans.

Right now, there are about 150,000 drivers in Central Texas who owe TXDOT a little more than $3 million in tolls. When you add the "administrative fees," that $3 million jumps to more than $56 million, officials say - making the average 1,700 percent.

"Astounded, outraged, um.. just unbelieveable," said former Texas State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn. "Where is common sense and fairness?"

Strayhorn spent eight years in charge of every dollar in Texas. She says people who drive on the toll roads should pay their tolls - and if they dont, a reasonable fee. But 4000 percent, she says, is simply mismanagement.

"If they cannot clean up their own mess at TxDOT, then let the Legislature step in and do it for them," she said.

At least lawmaker says the intention of the "adminstrative fee" may have been for a drivers entire account, not for multiple violations charged hundreds of times, over and over.

"I think when the Legislature put into the statute these relatively high allowable fines, it was contemplating that would be the total fine, not that it would be that times a hundred," said Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin.

Strama has toll roads in his district, and told KXAN these "adminstrative fees" in the "multiple thousand percent" range need a closer look - and that look is soon coming. The Legislature convenes in 2011, and part of its duties this time around will be to vet TxDOT and all its programs.

"This agency is under Sunset Review, and frankly the Sunset Review process is designed to root out things just like this," Strama said.

For now, however, TXDOT says you need to communicate with them.

"This can be very damaging to individuals to have to go through this process, so we want to make every reasonable effort we can to let them work with us," Tomlinson said.

Lopez said she tried.

"They would give me the information, but they would never give me enough where I could have probably saved another $3,000 in fees," Lopez said.

TXDOT's Collection agency is now calling people at home and sending letters to toll violators. But if you don't pay the collection agency, they really have no recourse. They cannot put it on your credit report. In fact, they cannot affect your credit, they cannot keep you from renewing your drivers license and they cannot keep you from registering your vehicle.

So TXDOT is now sending letters to people threatening to take them to court - and tonight at ten, we'll hear from County Officials who tell us that they can't do that either.

© 2010 KXAN: www.kxan.com

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