- Rich Oppel Special to the American-Statesman
For Dane Anderson, 2015 was a tough year. Her father died in September. Soon after, she moved her mother to assisted living as Alzheimer’s disease advanced.
Anderson made many trips from her North Austin home to her parents’ place in Fort Worth, passing over Loop 1 north of Parmer Lane and Texas State Highway 45 North.
Both are part of the Central Texas Turnpike System, which falls under the Texas Department of Transportation.
Anderson accumulated $194.34 in toll charges. TxDOT billed her credit card, which had expired. The agency said it then sent monthly statements by first class mail to her home. Anderson said she never received the bills.
Enter Perdue, Brandon, Fielder, Collins & Mott, a Houston law firm that sent her a collection letter on June 30.
The amount: $3,844.34.
“It scared the hell out of me,” said Anderson, who is 60. “I didn’t know what they were talking about. One minute I didn’t know I had a problem; the next thing I knew I had a $3,800 problem.”
Like Anderson, many people are caught up in the turbulence of family and work and are pressed financially. They miss a monthly payment. Usually they catch up.
Anderson said she called Texas Tag repeatedly but never could get through. She called the Houston law firm that sent the collection letter, pleading with an employee to waive penalties. She was directed back to Texas Tag. Anderson went to its office at 12719 Burnett Road.
She told her story to a clerk sitting behind a thick security window. The clerk went into a back room and returned to say that her supervisor had agreed to reduce the bill from $3,844.34 to $626.50, which Anderson reluctantly paid.
Later, a TxDOT executive who agreed mistakes may have been made in efforts to contact Anderson, refunded administrative fees, leaving only the $194.34 in tolls.
Across Texas, anger over tolls – and TxDOT’s collections methods – has crested, getting the attention of Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who face re-election campaigns in 2018 and now oppose further tolls.
State Rep. Ina Minjarez, D-San Antonio, saw that simmering anti-tolls anger rise to a boil among her constituents. She sponsored legislation during the 2017 session to handcuff TxDOT on fees and fines. Administrative fees will be capped at $48 a year, and fines at $250 a year, beginning March 1.
“Many citizens have experienced financial hardship due to the exorbitant fees added to their bills and have expressed their concerns with me,” she told me.
TxDOT people are tasked to keep solvent the tollways they operate. That is no easy job, because many of the politicians who now reflect the anger of motorists are the same officials who for decades have denied TxDOT increases in gas tax monies.
Here is what I mean: The state gas tax of 20 cents a gallon was last raised in 1991, when a gallon of regular cost $1.14. The gas tax remains frozen at 20 cents, while a gallon of gas now costs at least $1.95. Meanwhile road building costs are up more than 80 percent.
Instead of relying on growth in the gas tax, TxDOT borrows money to build some new roads. The debt takes the form of revenue bonds, and they are repaid with interest — by toll monies. For example, the bonds outstanding for the Central Texas Turnpike System, which operates some but not all toll roads in Central Texas, total $2.7 billion.
To make the required payments, it has been TxDOT’s role to shock intentional toll violators with huge bills — $3,000 or $4,000 or more – to get their attention. And when the bill arrives under the letterhead of Perdue, Brandon, Fielder, Collins & Mott in Houston, it can be frightening.
The problem is that it’s a one-size shoe that doesn’t fit all. And I don’t think it fits Dane Anderson and others like her.
She shouldn’t have to live in fear of the state. Nor should the undocumented worker who, in this age of President Trump’s anti-immigrant actions, avoids contact with government authority. Nor should the poor and uneducated for whom “negotiation” may be an unknown concept. Must they sell their car and borrow from a payday lender to come up with $4,000?
James Bass, executive director of TxDOT, and his team are under orders of the Texas Legislature to reform collection methods by March 1. Meanwhile, they must search out deadbeats to get them to pay their bills.
“We are always looking to improve our customer service. We do care,” Bass said in an interview. “But we are also under a commitment to the bondholders (pension funds, retirees and other investors who hold the debt) to try and collect.”
I respect Dane Anderson for fighting the $3,844 bill. I also respect James Bass and the TxDOT people for keeping the tollways solvent. But we do need reform.
Oppel is a retired editor of the American-Statesman.