Saturday, January 08, 2011

"This is crazy and reeks of abusive misuse of a public agency."

Legislature may look at cap on toll penalties


By Dave Lieber
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2011


The 2011 Texas Legislature, opening this week, offers lawmakers the chance to provide more oversight of how the North Texas Tollway Authority collects fines and fees on unpaid toll bills.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, is preparing a bill that would lower the fees and penalties charged to motorists on top of their tolls.

Motorists complain that a 45-cent toll bill can end up costing hundreds of dollars by the time NTTA is done billing those who haven't paid.

For the past year, The Watchdog asked readers who complained about the NTTA's practices to send Nelson their complaints in writing to help lawmakers understand the problem. Nelson's staff said last week that her office has received 140 written complaints. She is still collecting them.

Nelson tells The Watchdog: "I am working on legislation to lower the cap on administrative fees that the NTTA can charge, and to have those capped fees apply to the entire invoice regardless of how many separate violations are on that invoice.

"My goal is to stop these fees from adding up to unreasonable amounts for vehicle owners, while allowing the tollway agency to reasonably cover their expenses."

Whatever happens, the tollway authority won't make it easy. Nelson said a year ago that when she questioned the NTTA, "they've been very defensive."

Criticism comes from the inside, too. Current NTTA Chairman Victor Vandergriff of Arlington complained in a public meeting a year ago that the authority's budget may depend too much on penalty fees.

The payment system confuses many drivers. No signs on the toll roads explain the process. The NTTA no longer uses tollbooths. Drivers who keep a TollTag on their windshield must remember to keep enough cash in their accounts.

For vehicles lacking tags, license plates are photographed and bills are mailed after the fifth transaction. Car owners billed by mail are charged 50 percent more than what TollTag users pay.

Motorists are supposed to keep their addresses up to date with the state so the bills arrive properly. Sometimes, though, car owners say they never received initial bills but learned later that they owe hundreds of dollars.

The NTTA says that it mails the letters and that if they don't come back, it considers them delivered.

In October, I reported how a woman went to jail for 27 hours for failing to appear in court for an unpaid toll bill that she estimates was for $11.

She said she never received the bill.

I won't defend scofflaws who don't pay their tolls. As a TollTag account holder, I certainly don't want to cover other people's costs. But I was curious about how much the biggest toll runners owe. A Public Information Act request to the NTTA provided the answer.

The NTTA won't release names, but its records show that the No. 1 scofflaw owes $72,000, followed by four drivers who each owe more than $60,000.

How you can owe that much is beyond me. The NTTA won't say how much is for tolls and how much is for fees and penalties.

For most customers who get into trouble, though, it's small tolls and big add-ons. Two motorists have complained to me that although they tried to pay their bills, the NTTA still sent their accounts to its collection agency.

David Spruiell of Arlington says his toll bill was for $8.56, but "I obviously misread the bill." He mailed a check for $9.56 -- $1 more. The authority sent the check back with an explanation that he had overpaid. He says he tried to call twice but gave up when the lines were tied up. Next he got a notice from a collection agency that he owes $208.

When he called to complain, an NTTA staffer told him that he could negotiate to pay less. "This is a one-time offer," he was told. "I'll take $138 if you pay today."

He didn't take the offer.

"It's not like I didn't try to pay," he says. "A late fee of $10 would be acceptable, but not $200. I don't want to have a warrant issued against me, but this is crazy and reeks of abusive misuse of a public agency."

The NTTA says it is not equipped to handle overpayments on its pay-by-mail system.

Roger Beaman of Mansfield acknowledges that he paid his $10.45 bill three days late. His problem? He forgot to write his car's license plate number or invoice number on the check. He has two cars in his household. When the NTTA received the check, it credited it to the wrong car.

One car had a $10.45 bill, and the other had zero. But the NTTA put the $10.45 into the zero account, giving it a credit, while the other account went delinquent.

When he called to complain, a staffer promised to fix it but never did, he says. He kept trying. One NTTA staffer told him that if he sent $7.95, it would go away. He did as he was told, but that didn't work either. A collection agency seeks $182.

"I can say their check-handling skills with my account would get a failing grade," he says.

NTTA spokeswoman Kimberly Jackson says, "It is important that customers contact us early if they have any questions so we can work with them to resolve the issue quickly and at the lowest cost for the customer."

Jackson says the NTTA plans to make an improvement: "We will be implementing a program in 2011 through a track-and-trace program with the U.S. Postal Service. We soon will be able to track when a letter was delivered."

That will help, but it can't come soon enough. The NTTA builds massive road projects, but it seems to have problems with the mail. When I called last month to order new Velcro strips for my worn TollTag, the NTTA sent me a replacement set.

Three different times.

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