Thursday, March 03, 2011

“There are a lot of eyes watching us. And there is a lot of chatter in Austin, chatter that is being backed up by legislative activity.”

NTTA pushing back against bills that would sharply reduce fees on unpaid tolls


Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2011

North Texas Tollway Authority officials are pushing back against legislation filed in the Texas Senate and the Texas House that would dramatically reduce fees it can impose on drivers who fail to pay their tolls.

NTTA collects millions of dollars in fees each year from drivers who ignore bills for at least 75 days, and has insisted that its practice of attaching a $25 fee for every unpaid toll transaction is both necessary and required by state law.

Last year, a review by the NTTA board failed to end the practice, despite opposition by board member Victor Vandergriff, who has since become chairman. And the authority has defended the practice in federal court against ongoing claims by four customers who say the fees are unconstitutional.

All that could change if legislation filed by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound , and Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, succeeds in Austin.

The bills, which are identical, would require NTTA to send one notice each month containing all the unpaid tolls a customer has incurred that month. NTTA would be permitted to add just a single $25 fee to the invoice, and give customers 30 days to pay the past-due amount.

Customers who don’t pay within that time could be guilty of a traffic violation, and subject to a court-imposed fine of up to $250. They would be liable for only one violation for failure to pay all the tolls incurred in a single month.

A spokeswoman for Nelson said the senator was unavailable to comment on the bill Thursday.
NTTA government relations director Carrie Rogers told board members Thursday that she had made clear to Nelson that the bill as written would threaten the “integrity of our system.”

Her boss, executive director Allen Clemson, said in a subsequent interview that the legislation as written would cost NTTA about $20 million annually.

Most NTTA customers use a TollTag, and therefore pay their tolls in advance. But for those who do not, the only way to pay their tolls is to have their license plate photographed as they pass through checkpoints. Once a driver has incurred 30 toll transactions, or 30 days pass, NTTA sends the owner of the car a bill for just those transactions.

If they aren’t paid within 45 days, the authority attaches an $8.25 fee to each of what might be dozens of unpaid transactions on a single unpaid invoice. If the owner fails to pay within another 30 days, the account is sent to collections and each one of those fees roughly triples, to $25.
Some customers have reported fines of hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of dollars as a result of the way NTTA levees the fines per transaction.

That would change if the legislation becomes law, but Clemson said NTTA has more to worry about with the legislation than just the lost revenue it now collects. Only 8 percent of the authority’s 500 million annual transactions are unpaid, he said. That’s due in part, he said, to the strong deterrent provided by the stiff penalties.

Knowing that failure to pay a month’s worth of tolls only brings a $25 fine might encourage customers who pay their bills not to do so, he said.

“If we were to make changes and see that slipping from 92 percent to 90, or 85, then we would have problems,” Clemson said.

Vandergriff voted last year against keeping the basic fee structure in place. He lost 8-1, but he too said he’s concerned that Nelson’s legislation could have unintended consequences. Any lost revenues would have to be made up, he said, and if collections were to fall over time, it would be drivers who do pay who would suffer.

“We’d eventually be in the position of having to raise our rates,” he said. “And to me, asking people who already pay their tolls to absorb higher rates to cover those who don’t would be just as tragic as assessing the fees in the way that we already do.”

As result, he said the authority will continue to work with Nelson and Patrick aiming for a compromise bill, one that might include, for instance, lower fees but also a provision that unpaid toll balances would have to be paid before a driver could renew his or her vehicle registration.

Meanwhile, Vandergriff urged colleagues to take note that bills targeting NTTA practices are accumulating in Austin. Whether or not they ultimately pass, the lesson should be clear, he said. “There are a lot of eyes watching us. And there is a lot of chatter in Austin, chatter that is being backed up by legislative activity,” he said.

Both bills have been referred to committee and await a second reading.

SB 366: Would require toll roads to revert to free state roads once debt associated with their construction is paid off.

HB 593: Would empower the state auditor to audit NTTA as if it were a state department.

HB 1577: Would subject NTTA to review by the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission before the 2013 session.

© 2011 The Dallas Morning News:

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