TxDOT outs worst toll dodgers

If bill collection letters and phone calls don’t work, then maybe public shaming will?

That was the theory Thursday as state officials made good on their promise to out the top highway toll dodgers, naming a few of the 28,000 habitual violators who each have at least 100 unpaid tolls. All of the top 25 are from the Austin area.

The state says it’s trying to collect $27 million in unpaid tolls from Texas Department of Transportation tollways. The amount owed by the 28,000 habitual violators was unclear.

“In effect, these people who are not paying are stealing from the state and the citizens of Texas,” said David Glessner, a TxDOT spokesman. “We just don’t see that as being fair to those who do pay their bills, nor is it fair to the progress of the state in terms of maintaining existing infrastructure and possibly building new roads.”

After sending habitual violators notices earlier this month warning of consequences under a new state law if they didn’t pay up, TxDOT posted the names of the top 25 violators on its website Thursday and shared them with news media.

At least two of the 25 contacted the agency after the list became public, said Glessner, who had no other details.

Sixteen offenders on the Top 25 list have more than $100,000 in unpaid tolls.

The vehicle with the most offenses is listed as being owned by Ronny Williams and Cora Lewis of Pflugerville, with 14,358 unpaid toll bills totaling $236,026.32 in tolls and fees. More than 1,500 of the 28,000 habitual violators have more than 400 unpaid tolls.

Roger Brooks from Round Rock, who TxDOT says owes $111,596.74 in unpaid tolls and fees, told the American-Statesman that he’s always paid his toll bills, which come to about $180 a month. He said he was unaware of the unpaid tolls and that they didn’t belong to him. Brooks said he contacted TxDOT on Thursday and made an appointment for Nov. 7 to address the situation.

The Statesman was unable to reach several others on the list.

Sponsored by state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, Senate Bill 1792 gives TxDOT the authority to release the names of the top 25 toll violators in order to collect tolls, Glessner said. The tolls are used to pay debt and fund operations of state-maintained toll roads.

If scofflaws don’t pay up, the state has two options under the new law.

Those who owe could be banned from using TxDOT toll roads and could have their vehicles impounded if they are stopped by law enforcement on a TxDOT tollway.

The state also can report habitual violators to county tax assessor-collectors to potentially block the renewal of their vehicles’ registration.

Glessner said he didn’t know when the state might employ those options. He said law enforcement could be tasked with looking for vehicles with violations.

Glessner said the state had reached out to habitual violators numerous times through invoices, violation notices, collection letters and phone calls. “Our objective has always been to engage them in some form or another and to make an attempt for them to clear their name,” he said.

Toll bills balloon quickly the longer they go unpaid. For example, a 50-cent unpaid toll can become a $448 liability in 202 days, when adding mailing fees, administrative fees, court fees and fines.

The $27 million in unpaid tolls doesn’t include what is owed in late fees and other charges, an additional $345 million.

The scofflaw list quickly became a topic of conversation on the Internet, with some calling the violators freeloaders. Others, however, criticized the fees as outrageous. Glessner said the added fees were the cost of pursuing violators.

“I would just remind people that if they paid their bills on time, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. There’s tens of thousands of drivers who use these roads every day and pay their tolls on time,” Glessner said.

This isn’t the first time TxDOT, which opened its first tollways in 2006 with three roads in Central Texas, has tried novel ways to get violators to pay. Under a 90-day amnesty in 2009, when the agency had 151,000 late payers owing $58.4 million in tolls and fines, those who came forward and paid (or set up payment plans) could get 90 percent of their late fees waived.

But only 7 percent of those in arrears came forward, netting the state agency about $765,000.

The transportation agency said motorists with unpaid toll violations should immediately contact the TxTag Customer Service Center at 888-468-9824 between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. weekdays. A negotiated settlement amount might be offered as well as a payment plan, if needed, officials said.

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