- Ben Wear American-Statesman Staff
Tens of thousands of toll tag holders throughout Texas have erroneously received pay-by-mail bills in recent weeks, rather than having the tolls subtracted from their tag accounts at lower rates, officials said Wednesday.
The glitch, which grew out of an attempt by toll agencies statewide to make Texas electronic toll tags usable in Kansas and Oklahoma, has clogged customer phone lines at TxTag and the offices that handle toll payments for agencies other than the Texas Department of Transportation, officials said.
The bad bills began around mid-May when the switch to a new “interoperability” program began, officials said. It has affected toll transactions on a sporadic basis, rather than hitting all of them.
This has meant that toll tag customers, used to simply having toll charges subtracted from their existing balance in a toll account, instead have in some cases received bills in the mail charging what is typically a 33 percent premium over a toll tag rate, plus administrative fees. The unexpected billings in many cases led to customers calling or visiting toll agency billing locations, such as TxDOT’s TxTag office on North MoPac Boulevard, encountering long hold times or lines.
It is not clear how many of those who received the inflated bills have simply paid them. Keith Harrison from Liberty Hill, who has several TxTag accounts for family members, has paid at least five of those bills already.
“My bills have been small, so I’ve paid them because I didn’t want to go through the pain to get them to reduce them,” said Harrison, who works in financial services technology. “They can programmatically fix this, because they have the license plate number and the toll tag number. They should be able to do credits back to people.”
That will happen, said James Bass, TxDOT’s executive director.
“We will definitely do that if we discover that we’ve billed them and they paid too much,” Bass told the American-Statesman on Wednesday. “We apologize for the experience people are having. We’ve captured all the glitches, and we’re going about correcting them as quickly as we can.”
State Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park, was heavily involved in 2014 in what was a stern legislative response to millions of delayed bills and late charges when TxDOT changed its TxTag contractor.
“People in my area are continually frustrated by billing problems on the toll roads,” said Dale, whose House district includes the 183-A tollway operated by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. “And their expectations aren’t very high: that when they drive on the road that they are charged the proper rate and don’t get fines or bills they don’t deserve.”
Dale said he had called TxDOT and will be meeting with agency officials Thursday.
The underlying problem involves a “translator” program that the Harris County Toll Road Authority was using in the transition to marrying up Texas electronic tags with systems in Oklahoma and Kansas. Until then, the toll tags issued by TxDOT, the Harris County agency and the North Texas Toll Authority could work on any Texas toll road, but not beyond state lines.
Over time, toll agencies around the country hope to make all of their various tags “interoperable” on all other U.S. tollways.
TxDOT and its TxTag operation apparently piggybacked on that Harris County translator program, meaning that the problem affected transactions involving TxTags and Harris County’s EZ Tags. For technical reasons, the problem has affected only those customers who used a TxTag on Harris County or Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority tollways, or an EZ Tag on a TxDOT or mobility authority road. Virtually all toll tag customers living in Central Texas have a TxTag.
Tim Reilly, director of operations for the mobility authority, which operates the 183-A, U.S. 290 East and Texas 71 tollways, said his agency became aware of the problem this month after about 1.6 million toll transactions had been affected. However, just 550,000 of those higher-priced tolls had gone out in about 100,000 bills, he said.
Billing on the other 1 million or so Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority transactions did not occur.
“We stopped the process of anything moving once we realized there was an issue,” Reilly said. If anyone with a valid electronic toll tag account paid the inflated bills, Reilly said, the toll surcharge and related fees will be refunded to their tag account.
The mobility authority on Wednesday posted a notice on its website saying “we sincerely apologize for the inconvenience. We are currently experiencing some delays in processing tag transactions from other tolling agencies. This may have caused some customers with accounts in good standing to receive a Pay By Mail toll bill. We are working with other tolling agencies to resolve payment. We will send you a letter confirming the account resolution.”
The TxTag website had a similar message under the innocuous headline “Announcements,” noting customers might face longer than normal call wait times, but nonetheless recommending that people with what appear to be illegitimate bills call the agency that issued them an electronic toll tag.
“Your home tag agency will file a dispute on your behalf to resolve these bill issues with the other agencies,” the message says.