Lawmaker warns of ‘open toll roads’ as House votes to cap toll fines

5:25 p.m Tuesday, May 16, 2017 Local
Rep. Larry D. Gonzales, R-Round Rock, cast one of only three votes against the amendment limiting the fines for unpaid tolls to $6 per violation. Ricardo B. Brazziell / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The Texas House unanimously passed a bill Tuesday to keep the lights on at the Texas Department of Transportation, but not before approving a surprise change that caps total toll fines at $73 every six months for any given customer.

“You can drive for free all day long,” said a disgusted Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, one of only three House members to vote against the amendment. Gonzales is the House sponsor of Senate Bill 312, the TxDOT sunset bill. “Open toll roads. And you only pay a $6 fine (per violation).”

The amendment from Rep. Ina Minjarez, D-San Antonio, who admitted that she was surprised at the 136-3 vote for her change, said toll violations would carry a $6 administrative fee, capped at $48 each six months for any given person, plus at most a $25 civil penalty every half year. Minjarez’s amendment does not cap court costs associated with taking a toll violator to court, but it also stipulates that failure to pay tolls would be a civil offense, not a criminal violation as is the case now.

The amendment, and about 10 others approved Tuesday, could be removed when House and Senate conferees hammer out differences between versions approved in the two chambers.

“That was pretty radical,” said Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park, who voted for the Minjarez amendment. “We’ll see if it stays on.”

The vote was a reaction to persistent reports over the past decade of some Texans finding themselves hit with hundreds or even thousands of dollars in fees and fines for unpaid tolls. Texas toll roads are run by a variety of government agencies, each with a different regime of penalties for unpaid tolls.

But generally toll fines build up quickly if bills are ignored, and each unpaid toll is considered a separate offense. So each unpaid toll could lead to fines and collection costs of $200 or more. People who drive persistently without an electronic toll tag and without paying bills that arrive in the mail could find themselves owing a huge amount.

Gonzales, arguing against the amendment, said toll agencies need the large fines to prevent people from driving without paying. He cited the case of a Hutto man who drove on Texas 130 habitually without paying.

“I don’t know what hammer I have on a guy from Hutto who drove for free for years,” Gonzales said.

Minjarez said the greater problem involves innocent people who get inaccurate bills, or inadvertently drive on toll roads and don’t realize their error until fines have built up.

“The perception is that people will go drive habitually without paying, but I don’t think people will do that,” Minjarez told the American-Statesman after the vote on her amendment. “There has to be some sort of balance. I’m not trying to protect willful toll violators.”

Her amendment was added to SB 312, which would renew TxDOT’s license to live for another 12 years. The bill, which is based on a review of the agency last year by the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, was fairly technical and mundane before the amendments added Tuesday.

SB 312 includes provisions for training members of the Texas Transportation Commission, planning and transparency requirements, stipulations about the state rail system and the Texas Aircraft Pooling Board, which TxDOT operates, and other language about how road projects are selected for funding. The agency, because of legislative displeasure about 10 years ago, has been through sunset review three times since 2009 rather than the normal once every dozen years.

The Senate approved the bill unanimously on a voice vote on March 21.

Aside from the toll fee change, the House approved an amendment requiring local toll agencies to pay back cash grants from TxDOT from toll revenues. However, the amendment from Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, which Gonzales opposed, would direct those repayments to local communities for future transportation projects. Gonzales accepted an amendment that would prohibit converting high-occupancy-vehicle lanes to toll lanes.

Gonzales also accepted a change that would revive the substance of House Bill 141 by Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, ordering TxDOT to pull tolls off the little-used Camino Colombia tollway, also known as Texas 255, near Laredo. That road, originally a private tollway, went bankrupt shortly after its 2004 opening; TxDOT bought it with cash at a great discount shortly thereafter.

The House soundly rejected an amendment to take tolls off all toll roads after debt issued to build the roads is paid off.