Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"I don't see how they can do it. It's worse than loan sharks."

Confusion leads to heavy toll fines

Toll operators say driver error is to blame


Doug Shupe
Copyright 2010

AUSTIN - KXAN Austin News has uncovered dozens of cases in which unpaid tolls have turned into bills as high as tens of thousands of dollars.

Toll roads first came to Central Texas four years ago. There are now a total of five tollways, including Texas Toll 130 in East Travis and Williamson counties.

The bottom line is the toll bills were not paid, and they ended up becoming criminal cases.

Although drivers can pay with cash at most tolls, use their TxTag or Pay by Mail as the signs say, some drivers contend the last option poses a problem because they never get bills in the mail.

TxDOT on the other hand, says those drivers used the toll roads for months, even years, and never made an attempt to pay or track down their bill.

Some toll bills cost as much as a new car. Nearly $27,000 dollars for Howard Crebo.

"I'm just dumbfounded," Crebo said.

More than $24,000 for Jacquelynn Mires.

"It was like, 'No way,' " said Mires.

Some $23,000 plus for Andrea Bosma.

"I wanted to pass out," she said.

In court, each agreed to monthly payments and the court reduced fines to less than $5,000. Sounds like a good deal? It's still much more than the $700 to $900 they originally racked up.

"Sometimes it just leaves me speechless," said Crebo.

TxDOT says each unpaid 50-cent toll will increase to $448.50 dollars within 200 days and land the violator in court. The additional charges pay for administrative, invoice, violation and Justice of the Peace fees.

"When it gets to the point of having to take a toll case to court, we're talking about lawyer's time, court reporter's time, a judge's time. All of the folks that are involved in the justice system. Their paychecks have to be paid, too," said TxDOT Spokesperson Karen Amacker.

It still doesn't sit right with drivers like Carl Benton.

"I don't see how they can do it. It's worse than loan sharks," Benton said.

Benton and those who agree with him say the higher fines are unfair because they never received bills in the mail, despite the option to "Pay By Mail."

"There's glitches in everything. I don't know why they're not getting sent out, but they're not," said Benton.

"Anything is possible. Things can get lost in the mail, and when that happens - the same as you would do if you noticed your electric bill didn't arrive or your credit card didn't arrive. We need people to pick up the phone and call us," said Amacker.

TxDOT stands by its third-party billing company and says most problems are a result of driver error.

Problems like not having a correct address on file with the DMV, not having enough money on a pre-paid TxTag account, not having a TxTag in the right place or having a TxTag account linked to an expired or closed credit card.

Some drivers have also said there's confusion over two different toll operators - TxDOT bills for State Highways 130 and 45, and Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority bills for extension 183A.

"People need to be proactive and not ignore things that come in the mail," said CTRMA Spokesperson Steve Pustelnyk.

Both CTRMA and TxDOT say bills are clearly marked and ask drivers to take personal responsibility in making sure they are paid.

"Most of our customers pay every day. They expect that we're not ignoring the people who are trying to get away with not paying, and so we have to take some action," said Pustelnyk.

Still, many who've received fines say they would have paid and on time, had they known.

"Some people, yes, I know are trying to get out of it, but some of us are not and still getting screwed," said Bosma.

This Thursday, Nov. 18, the Texas Transportation Commission will be meeting to talk about toll road fines and violation notification.

Many drivers we spoke said they don't plan to use the toll roads ever again.

To find out if and how much you owe in fines, you can call 1-888-GO-TX-TAG.

© 2010 KXAN: www.kxan.com

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