Wear: Scoffing at Texas tolls to carry less cost starting in March

3:06 p.m Friday, Feb. 16, 2018 Local

People who choose to drive on Texas tollways without paying are about to get a big break.

Make that, on some Texas tollways. More on that below.

As first reported by KXAN, the NBC affiliate in Austin, the Texas Department of Transportation fines for ignoring toll bills on March 1 will go from “My God!” level to “Meh,” thanks to laws passed by the 2017 Legislature. And even the huge outstanding bills — the ones for tolls ignored over the past decade of TxDOT tolling and sometimes multiplied into the thousands of dollars by fees and fines — could be discounted or even forgiven.

TxDOT hasn’t decided what to do about that lingering, $1.47 billion-plus accounts receivable situation.

The Houston law firm that has been serving as TxDOT’s bill collector, as a subcontractor to the company that processes tolls for the agency (Conduent, formerly Xerox), will stop its work at the end of the month. The law firm in the final stages has offered to knock as much as 85 percent off fees owed if customers will close out their balances, a TxDOT spokeswoman said.

TxDOT told me that Conduent, after ending the law firm’s contract, will do collections itself going forward.

But thanks to the Legislature, the bills due from now on (for tolls accrued after March 1 and not paid) will be much smaller. What that will mean to the level of highway law-scoffing remains to be seen. Even with the imposing possible fines that have existed for the past decade, more than 2 million drivers have used Texas toll roads and then not paid.

RELATED: Legislature puts a lid on toll fees

Starting March 1, the administrative fee for not paying will be limited to $4 a month, no matter how many unpaid tolls a person has racked up. Bear in mind, however: The driver will still owe the full amount of the underlying tolls. And for those convicted of not paying in a justice of the peace court, an additional fine capped at $250 a year would be a possibility, plus associated court costs.

But that’s only in the cases in which TxDOT chooses to take someone to court, and it’s not clear how often that will occur, given the lower financial stakes now involved for the agency.

The $4-a-month limit on late paying or nonpayment was set last year by Senate Bill 312 under language amended into the TxDOT sunset bill by Rep. Ina Minjarez, a San Antonio Democrat. San Antonio, by the way, has no toll roads.

Under the law set to expire in a couple of weeks, failure to pay tolls has triggered fees and fines of $25 or more for each ignored toll. Drive enough times without paying, which a good number of people have done since TxDOT opened its first tollways in Central Texas in 2006, and the figure owed could quickly gather a lot of zeroes.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about this issue.

Sometimes people inadvertently drive on a tollway, perhaps even more than once. I’ve even done it a couple of times myself, and I’ve been writing and thinking about the toll system around here for almost 15 years.

And because the bills are mailed to the name and address for the car when it was first registered, and often aren’t forwarded, people who moved and didn’t change their registration address could run up a tab without ever seeing a bill. And TxDOT’s subcontractors, it appears, often didn’t fall all over themselves trying to find the right address until the bill got really large.

And TxDOT and its contractor had episodes in 2014 and last year in which the toll system glitched big time and a lot of people were wrongly billed.

RELATED: TxDOT’s 2014 toll bill troubles

On the other hand, over the years, many of those who drove on tollways a bunch of times without an electronic toll tag and yet never got a bill no doubt knew and were delighted to be outfoxing the Man and getting away with something. Until they were no longer getting away with it.

But the stories of huge debts owed eventually resonated with the Legislature, and the law is about to change.

However — importantly for you Central Texas readers — the change applies only to TxDOT toll roads. And the greater Austin area has four toll roads that are operated by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority: 183-A, U.S. 290 East, North MoPac Boulevard and Texas 71.

To make this already confusing situation even worse, a person can (and many do) begin on a mobility authority toll lane on MoPac and then, at Parmer Lane, move seamlessly to a TxDOT toll road, Loop 1. Failing to pay for driving past Braker Lane will cost you much more than a toll accrued (and ignored) on that trip at Howard Lane.

Translation: You can still run up a huge debt of tolls, fees and fines driving those mobility authority roads if you don’t pay the bill. Each toll, if ignored for several months, could carry a fine of more than $250.

Only on these four TxDOT roads (and I have mixed feelings about helping non-toll-payers in this manner) — Loop 1, Texas 45 North, Texas 130 and Texas 45 Southwest — will that $48-a-year fine cap exist.

One further wrinkle: State Rep. Joe Pickett, an El Paso Democrat who has mixed feelings about toll roads, in September sent Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton a request for an opinion about the fine regimes on non-TxDOT toll roads. To what extent, he asked Paxton, would the new fine caps apply to tollways where TxDOT owns the road and the ground beneath it, but a regional toll authority operates it?

Paxton hasn’t answered that question yet.

But if he issues an opinion that the new $48 cap applies to such roads, then things could change here in Austin. Three of those mobility authority tollways are on TxDOT highways, with free lanes alongside the toll lanes. Only 183-A was built from scratch and thus might fall outside such a ruling by Paxton.

Even more confusion, in other words. Fun.

I have some suggestions to cut through all this: get a TxTag or stay off the tollways. Or if you drive on one, even by mistake, pay the bill when it comes. That day.

I hear from people periodically who refuse to get a toll tag, either because they hate the whole concept of paying tolls or because the idea of giving their credit card number to TxDOT makes them nervous. These would be the same people, I assume, who recite their credit card number to online bots and hand the plastic to strangers several times a week at restaurants and stores. Go figure.

But I’ve had a TxTag since 2006 and have never had a problem. At most, TxDOT at any given time is holding between $10 and $30 of my money. If I invested the higher of those two figures and made 3 percent a year, I would be about 90 cents richer.

In return for maintaining that fluctuating TxTag account, I pay 25 percent less than those without a tag on any tolls I happen to get. And I don’t have to worry about fees and fines and bill collectors.

Worth thinking about.