- By Ben Wear American-Statesman Staff
The rapidly escalating tollway fines that have left some Texans owing thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars could be a thing of the past, based on an amendment that surprisingly found its way into a Texas Department of Transportation bill this week.
But the impact to your pocketbook would depend on which tollway you’re driving.
Under the amendment, a car owner who has driven on a tollway without paying — even hundreds of times — would owe at most $73 in fines every six months, plus the unpaid tolls. But that change, proposed by Rep. Ina Minjarez, D-San Antonio, and approved by the House 136-3, would apply only to TxDOT tollways.
The agency owns just five tollways, including four in Central Texas: the northern stretch of Texas 130 from Georgetown to Mustang Ridge, Texas 45 North, Loop 1 north of Parmer Lane and Texas 45 Southeast. The fifth TxDOT turnpike, lightly used Texas 255 near Laredo, would see its tolls end under another amendment tacked on Tuesday to Senate Bill 312, the TxDOT “sunset” bill.
But Austin-area drivers could still, in theory, rack up larger fines on the 183-A, U.S. 290 East and Texas 71 tollways, operated by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, as well as the MoPac Boulevard, U.S. 183 and Texas 45 Southwest tollways that are now under construction.
Mike Heiligenstein, the mobility authority’s executive director, said his agency’s policy from the beginning has been to work with customers judged to have innocently lost a bill or who might never have received one. But, Heiligenstein said, there are also many cases of parents who look the other way while their teenager blithely uses a tollway over and over without paying, and a cohort of adult “habitual offenders” who drive on tollways repeatedly with no intention of paying.
At some point, he said, “personal responsibility” lies with the owner of the car, adding that there are people who consciously engage in “toll-lifting.” But Heiligenstein said the huge fines in many cases are just not appropriate and he is open to some sort of cap.
“Look, I hate this thing of $3,000 fines, or whatever,” he said. “I don’t disapprove capping it at some punitive level, say $250 or $500 every six months. And then you need to block their vehicle registration” until the driver pays what is owed.
Heiligenstein said he knows that agencies such as his could be next in the legislative cross hairs.
“Fortunately, we weren’t added” to SB 312, he said. “But it’s a shot over the bow.”
Senate leaning toward acceptance
It appears increasingly that the toll fine cap, and the other House amendments to SB 312, could become law. Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, the Senate sponsor of SB 312, said Thursday that he is leaning toward accepting the House amendments, including the Minjarez cap on toll fines. In that case, the Senate would need only to vote to “concur” with the House version approved on a final, unanimous vote Wednesday, which it likely would do based on Nichols’ recommendation.
Nichols, a former Texas Transportation Commission member, said he is “proud” of Minjarez for proposing and passing the toll fine cap. The huge toll escalation schedules for TxDOT, and other toll agencies, are too onerous, he said, and the agencies are too prone to billing mistakes that lead to the huge sums owed.
“The tolling entities are not paying enough attention to errors and penalties being sent out,” Nichols said in an interview. “We’ve heard incredible stories of having very lengthy wait times to correct a mistake. (Minjarez) is touching on something I would call a customer service issue. They (toll agencies) have a captive audience.”
Under TxDOT policy, a person who incurs a toll on one of the agency’s roads (without having an electronic toll tag to instantly pay the tab) receives a bill in the mail based on a photograph taken of the car’s license plate. The bill, initially for $1.15 plus the toll charges, is sent to the address on file for the vehicle’s registration.
But if the person doesn’t pay within 35 days, the money grows to $5 for each toll (plus the underlying toll) after three months, and $25 after four months. Ignore a bill for eight months, and TxDOT could transfer the case to county court and the fine would leap to $350. For a person owing dozens of tolls or more, the cost of not paying timely can grow very large.
Sending a ‘wake-up call’
Minjarez said Thursday she was surprised and gratified to hear of Nichols’ support for her toll fine cap, which would apply only to tolls incurred after Sept. 1. Even if it is eventually stripped out of the final bill, she said, a message has been sent to TxDOT and the state’s various regional toll authorities.
“It has opened their eyes, and they know they have to deal with it,” Minjarez said. “It’s been a wake-up call.”
She said she intends to ask that the issue of toll fines be studied during the legislative interim, with the possible goal of extending a toll fine cap to regional mobility authorities like the one in Austin.
Minjarez acknowledged that her fine cap might be too low and might encourage people to drive on tollways without paying. That, in turn, could cause trouble for toll agencies that have issued hundreds of millions of dollars of debt to build tollways and need the toll revenue to pay back those loans. Capping the toll fines at such a low point could increase what the toll agencies call “leakage,” the percentage of people who drive and never pay a toll.
“It could be great,” she said, “if we could talk about finding a middle point.”