Wear: How to tame those Texas-sized toll bills

Updated June 29, 2014

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.