Watch out, toll scofflaws: TxDOT may impound your car

9:07 p.m Friday, March 21, 2014 Local

Each month, Charles Ackridge is supposed to make a dent in the $40,000 or so a court decided he owed for thousands of unpaid tolls.

The Austin man sent his one and only payment, about $350, in 2009. But for years he’s taken the Texas 45 and Texas 130 tollways to get around town.

TxDOT plans to soon try a new way of reeling in the top toll scofflaws like Ackridge. It will partner with law enforcement agencies to impound cars that have racked up at least 100 violations within a year but continue to drive on tollways. A vehicle wouldn’t be released until the owner made good on the toll bill.

All of the state’s top 25 toll violators are from the Austin area, and 13 owe more than $100,000 in tolls and fees. TxDOT has $32.7 million total in unpaid tolls, spokeswoman Veronica Beyer wrote in an email.

A county constable’s office based in Round Rock is the only law enforcement agency so far to contract with TxDOT, but the state agency will pursue other agreements, Beyer wrote.

Deputies from the constable’s office will be stationed on Texas 45 and Texas 130 in Williamson County, Chief Deputy Robert Woodring said. They’ll have the license plate numbers of frequent toll violators and the time when those drivers typically blow through toll plazas, Woodring said.

The first time, the driver will get a citation, Woodring said. The second time, the car will get towed.

Before any of that can happen, TxDOT has to declare the driver a “habitual” violator, a designation that can be contested in court. The Texas Transportation Commission must also issue an order banning the vehicle from tollways, which it will consider doing for 12 vehicles next week.

“I’m the last attempt,” Woodring said.

The point, Woodring said, is to catch drivers who otherwise slip through TxDOT’s net, especially those who purchased a vehicle that still had a TxTag on it. In that scenario, the previous registered owner would get hit with a mountain of toll bills — and served with a court summons, and maybe even an arrest warrant — all for naught, Woodring said.

Any work deputies do for TxDOT will be overtime, and Williamson County will bill the state agency for those hours, Woodring said. The contract between the county and TxDOT is worth $173,784 and ends January 2019, Williamson County documents show.

“Not paying tolls is effectively stealing from the taxpayers of Texas. Recovering unpaid tolls is a responsibility TxDOT will continue to take seriously as we pursue millions of dollars in delinquent tolls that could be used to better serve the people of Texas,” said James Bass, TxDOT interim executive director.

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority doesn’t see the need to partner with law enforcement to get payments from scofflaws, spokesman Rick L’Amie said.

Others are skeptical of the impounding plan.

“If TxDOT pays an officer to, say, sit down at 130 and (FM) 685 at this toll gate, from the hours of 5 to 7, and watch for this car with this license plate — well, once the public finds that out, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist too long to figure out that they’ll probably get on the tollway somewhere else,” said Chief Deputy Mark Birchard, who works for a Williamson County constable’s office based in Taylor.

Neal Weir of Hutto, who TxDOT says has 3,827 toll violations, said he would likely avoid toll roads altogether, since the notion of his car getting taken away “scared” him. Weir said the $77,459.85 he owes built up after he changed addresses and stopped receiving toll bills.

Ackridge, who is among TxDOT’s top 25 toll violators, though he now uses a TxTag, said if his car gets impounded, he’d just buy another one. After all, he’s flouted TxDOT many times in the past — the state agency mailed multiple past-due notices, filed a criminal complaint and tried to negotiate a payment plan. All failed, and his case ended up before a jury.

Travis County Judge Glenn Bass said the new law could lengthen the time it takes a case to move through his court if TxDOT decides to file complaints against “habitual” violators. Typically, cases get settled in a pretrial hearing, but in rare instances a jury hears the case.

“Time will tell, but I would suspect that the average defendant will be very passionate about their vehicle being impounded or the prospect of their vehicle being impounded,” Bass said.

There are signs that TxDOT is still experimenting with the best way to use the court system to arrange deals with toll violators.

For each of three months last year, Williamson County Justice of the Peace Dain Johnson’s court saw 300 toll violation cases, about half his total caseload, as part of what he called a TxDOT “pilot program.” In those cases, Johnson said, TxDOT had a “threshold for filing that was a lot lower,” meaning the violators had less than $1,000 in unpaid tolls.

TxDOT didn’t respond to a request for information about the project.

Senate Bill 1792, passed last year, gave TxDOT more teeth when it comes to making toll violators pay. Before the threat of impounding cars, TxDOT began releasing monthly lists of top toll violators last fall. The state agency can also report “habitual” toll violators to county tax assessor-collector’s offices, which can then deny them vehicle registration renewal.

The Travis and Williamson County tax assessor-collectors have no immediate plans to do so, officials said.

“Our taxpayers come into our office to get registration renewals, and we’d like to be able to provide them that service without any hindrances above and beyond that,” said Larry Gaddes, chief deputy at the Williamson county tax assessor-collector’s office.