With more than $7 billion in debt and a recession that has depressed overall traffic, NTTA hammers drivers with huge fines to recoup their losses.
By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER
The Dallas Morning News
Hundreds of thousands of drivers are getting a free ride on area toll roads even as tollway authorities hammer others with huge fines to recoup their losses. The reason: The costly camera system that is fast replacing human toll-takers routinely fails to identify customers who use the roads without a TollTag. As a result, 28 percent of drivers without TollTags are never even billed.
That means North Texas Tollway Authority leaves a big pool of money on the table each year – a sum its officials have gone to great, and controversial, lengths to recoup.
How big? In 2010, the authority expects customers without TollTags to rack up 80 million tolls worth $64 million. With 28 percent never billed, mainly because of NTTA's inability to match images from the cameras to valid addresses for the vehicles' owners. NTTA will lose $17.9 million in uncollected – and unbilled – toll revenue.
That's more than offset, officials say, by reduced operating costs as the last of the toll booths are eliminated by the end of the year. And, they believe the TollTags that 80 percent of their customers now have will make using their roads easier and bring more revenue.
But for now, with more than $7 billion in debt and a recession that has depressed overall traffic, NTTA finds itself under pressure to recoup as much of that lost revenue as possible.
So far, it has found no way to make the cameras more successful. And its efforts to persuade customers to sign up for TollTags – which involves paying tolls before incurring them – have fallen short of expectations.
Some drivers who were never invoiced say they called and asked to pay – and still didn't get a bill.
"I have found the system without tollbooths very confusing as a visitor to the area," said Mary Ann Appling, who comes to Dallas often with two children in nearby colleges.
"The first time I realized I was accidentally on a toll road without paying, I panicked. Being unfamiliar with the system and expecting a tollbooth, I had no idea what to do next. I expected an officer to start following me, but it never happened.
"I called the toll authority and they told me I would get a bill," she said. "It never arrived."
NTTA spokeswoman Sherita Coffelt said despite the billing problems, the switch to electronic tolls has benefited drivers, making the roads safer, traffic faster, and the air cleaner – all due to the fact that drivers no longer have to stop every few miles to pay.
"Overall it has been a positive transition," she said. "We've seen a 13 percent reduction in accidents on the Bush Turnpike while usage has steadily increased. And travel time, too, has been reduced."
She said NTTA will save $10 million in annual operations and maintenance expenses as well.
NTTA's problems with the cameras aren't unique, but they do seem more severe than some other agencies. The Texas Department of Transportation uses cameras to identify about a fifth of its customers on three roads near Austin. Of those, 13 percent are never sent bills, said spokeswoman Karen Amacher.
NTTA knew the cameras wouldn't work all the time and expected them to occasionally fail. But in the two years since it began phasing in the new cameras, failures have been much worse than anticipated. That's partly because the state address database often proves unreliable.
But the collections problems associated with the new reliance on the cameras goes well beyond troubles with outdated addresses. In fact, the $17.9 million that NTTA misses because of the faulty camera system is only the beginning of the hassles brought on by NTTA's $92 million conversion to all-electronic toll collections.
Even among the customers the cameras do identify, only 39 percent pay on time. An additional 29 percent pay after late fees or higher administrative fees are assessed.
But fully one out of every three of the customers sent bills simply refuses to pay. They can quickly find themselves dealing with collection agencies and penalties that turn small toll debts into bills worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
They have plenty of company. This year, for instance, NTTA expects to sic collection agencies on more than 400,000 drivers.
And while NTTA leaders point out the obvious – if these drivers simply paid on time, they'd avoid the collections hassles – many drivers dispute the agency's claim that they received a bill.
Together these delinquent accounts represent $14.7 million in unpaid tolls. But once the collection firms add on stiff penalties, they have the right to collect debts worth a total of $277 million.
The NTTA's nine-member board has voted to keep its collections policies intact, though it has reduced the fees customers must pay if they settle within 75 days – the point at which debts go to collection firms.
One board member who has consistently disagreed is vice chairman Victor Vandergriff of Tarrant County.
"I think the concept of the electronic tolls is good," said Vandergriff, noting the convenience for TollTag users and the operational savings for NTTA.
"But I am still troubled by the rate of uncollected tolls, the reported rates of the camera failures, and the administrative fees program in generation. I am concerned that perhaps those who are paying are paying far more than they should to offset what we are not getting from those who don't pay [or aren't billed] at all."
As scary as the soaring fees can be for the drivers who refuse to pay, the news is equally depressing for NTTA.
NTTA says 4.1 percent of the total will be collected this year. Once the firms take their commissions, which average 19 percent, NTTA will recoup just $9.2 million.
© 2010 The Dallas Morning News: www.dallasnews.com
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