Wear: How to tame those Texas-sized toll bills


The problem with toll roads, a young friend recently told me, is that people move a lot these days. Particularly 20-somethings.

Being newer to this life thing, they don’t update their address with the proper authorities. Then they drive on a toll road without a toll tag, maybe several times, and expect to get a bill in the mail. But it never arrives because the toll road owners send the bills to the old address. Then the first violation notice goes to the same place, and the second, the third, and, finally, a court summons.

The result can be a bill for thousands of dollars for driving on a tollway a few times and, frankly, being a bit irresponsible, oblivious and unlearned about the way of the world. Can’t the state or whoever collect email addresses, which tend to be a bit more portable, my friend said, so the bill reaches these folks in a timely manner?

I asked Texas Department of Transportation officials about this.

The agency is on the cusp of a major overhaul of its TxTag technology, website, phone system and billing format. A shutdown of the system from Thursday evening through the morning of July 8 will allow the conversion to a new vendor and software and the new — and hopefully improved — TxTag will debut.

Bills will be consolidated, grouping tags attached to several vehicles with the same owner and associating several violations with the same vehicle and owner. Customers will be able to access live chat 24/7 at txtag.org, and the phone system will include automated features allowing you to pay bills, check balances and review recent tolls. If you want to talk to someone, TxDOT swears there will be more customer reps.

But the overhaul won’t solve this problem of bills going to defunct addresses, which, incidentally, isn’t limited to TxDOT.

At the core of all this is the complexity of our toll system, the tie-in to vehicles and driver information, and the gradual elimination of cash toll booths in favor of toll tags and pay-by-mail systems.

Central Texas, to remind you, has seven tollways (and several more on the way) but two owners. TxDOT owns five of the roads: Loop 1, Texas 45 North, Texas 45 Southeast, Texas 130 north of Texas 45 Southeast and, though a private consortium operates it, Texas 130 south of Texas 45 Southeast. The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, meanwhile, owns the 183-A and U.S. 290 East tollways.

Your TxTag and the differently branded tags from the Houston and Dallas toll agencies work on any of them. But if you drive on a tollway without a toll tag, a camera suspended above the road takes a picture of your license plate. That plate is then linked with the car or truck’s owner using vehicle registration data on file.

TxDOT sends you a bill for its roads and the mobility authority (using a collections vendor named Municipal Services Bureau) bills for its two roads. But their policies differ.

TxDOT bills on a monthly cycle, while the authority bills every 15 days. If you fail to pay a TxDOT bill, you eventually will accumulate a fine for each and every unpaid toll. The mobility authority, on the other hand, fines you based on an overall unpaid bill. So, for instance, if you get a bill for 10 tolls from TxDOT, and don’t pay for 90 days, you’ll owe a $25 fine for each of those tolls: $250.

Get 10 tolls and don’t pay for three months on a mobility authority road, and the total fine would be $60.

Either way, as my friend suggested, those late fines in many cases might be avoided if the toll road owner had access to more than an out-of-date address. I talked to the Department of Motor Vehicles, which maintains vehicle registration information, and to the Department of Public Safety, overseer of driver’s licenses. Neither asks customers for email addresses, and nothing indicates they’re about to do so.

Of course, another way to avoid the fines is for people who move to follow the law, and good sense, and get their addresses changed promptly. Or if they drive on a toll road, and don’t get a bill, figure out who operates the road and go seek out a bill.

Yes, I know, that sounds crazy to actually chase after a bill. But the alternative is hoping that somehow the system overlooked your sojourn on the tollway. Highly unlikely.

There’s yet another alternative: get a dang toll tag.

Already, about 590,000 of 1.7 million registered vehicles in the five-county Central Texas area have a tag. That is just over 1 in 3 cars or trucks.

Getting a TxTag costs $13.85 up front, and you have to give them $20 to draw down as you drive on tollways. Most people put a credit card number and authorization on file, allowing the agency to charge another $20 every time the account falls below $10.

Drive a tollway, even by mistake, and you’ll get a bill for the toll, generally at least 60 cents, plus a billing fee of $1 or $1.15. And then if they don’t pay within 30 days, a fine of $5 to $15.

Now that’s crazy.

Got a car? Get the tag.


Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Local

Cruz opens up 9 point lead over O’Rourke, poll finds
Cruz opens up 9 point lead over O’Rourke, poll finds

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has a 9-percentage point lead over challenger U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, according to a poll of likely voters released Tuesday. A Quinnipiac University Poll in August of registered voters — not likely voters — had Cruz, seeking a second term, holding an apparent 6-point lead. In May, another Quinnipiac...
Police say man stole $22 in food from Whole Foods, head-butted guard
Police say man stole $22 in food from Whole Foods, head-butted guard

A man is accused of stealing $22.78 worth of food last week from Whole Foods near downtown Austin and head-butting a security guard when he was confronted outside the store, court documents said. In arrest affidavits filed against Evan Joseph Nesby, Austin police said the 33-year-old walked out of the store on 5th Street and Lamar Boulevard with ...
These are the four state capitals better to live in than Austin, list says
These are the four state capitals better to live in than Austin, list says

How can Austin be both simultaneously the “best place to live in America” and only the fifth-best state capital to call home in the country?  Ask financial services company Smart Asset, which recently compiled a list of the “Best State Capitals to Live In” in 2018. In compiling the list, the site looked at...
Community news: Meetings set on mobility bond projects

TRAVIS COUNTY AUSTIN Mobility bond open house set The Austin Transportation Department will host public open houses this month as part of the 2016 mobility bond for substandard streets. Open houses will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Abiding Love Lutheran Church, 7210 Brush Country Road; 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Sept. 26 at Cowan Elementary School, 2817...
Central Health to reconsider budget, hold hearing on Sendero closure
Central Health to reconsider budget, hold hearing on Sendero closure

2 p.m. update: Travis County commissioners on Tuesday agreed to postpone a vote on the county health district’s budget to give the agency time to schedule a public hearing on whether it should close its nonprofit health insurance provider, Sendero Health Plans. Commissioner Jeff Travillion said the extra time will give commissioners...
More Stories