It’s been a long time coming, but Texas commuters may finally cut a break when it comes to relief from exorbitant toll fines and fees. Texas State Rep. Joe Pickett, former House Transportation Committee Chair, fired off a request for an official legal opinion from Attorney General Ken Paxton this week to see if the caps on toll fines and fees in Senate Bill 312 apply to other toll entities besides the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). Pickett’s House colleagues Rep. Ina Minjarez, Rep. Tom Oliverson, and Rep. Tony Dale joined him in signing the letter.
The Texas legislature passed SB 312 in May during the 85th legislative session, and it contains a strong toll collection reform capping the administrative fees imposed on drivers to just $48/year and $250/year in criminal penalties. But one section of the bill references another section of the transportation code that says an entity operating a toll lane has the same powers and duties regarding toll collection as TxDOT. That’s the hook anti-toll advocates are hoping will force the law to apply to all toll agencies, not just TxDOT when it comes to taming the out of control, excessive fines and fees being tacked onto toll bills across the state.
Texans have been financially raked over the coals, usually incurred by simple mistakes like a payment card expiring and toll entities failing to notify drivers of problems with their automatic payments before fines and fees start adding up. The stories are horrific. One Texas driver reports being fined $5,600 over $300 in unpaid tolls.
Another driver says they received a bill for $7,600 from a collections agency four years after the supposed violations, when they hadn’t received the original toll bill without any fines or fees. One commuter received a bill for $1,000 and when he called about it, they told him he now owed $13,600. Some bills can be as little as $22, and yet Texans have received bills for as much as $900 in fines and fees with no opportunity to work out payment plans or reduce the fines. One driver was charged $75 in fees for not paying a $1.26 toll (a single trip through Houston). This is while he had $40 in his TxTag account with the Harris County Toll Authority.
In Texas, a driver’s vehicle registration gets blocked for failure to pay toll bills. If you fail to show up in court over the disputed fines or unpaid bill, you could eventually face jail. The Texas House voted overwhelmingly to de-criminalize the failure to a pay a toll bill 136-3, but a handful of conference committee members put criminalization back into the final bill. Many lawmakers are still fuming over it and vow to address it the next time the legislature convenes in 2019.
An Austin resident literally moved out of state after she could no longer pay her monthly toll bills in excess of $300. She turned to high interest, short-term loans to bail her out for a time, and when she got buried under those bills, moved a family into her house to help out with rent so she could try to cover the toll expense. When that ended, she stayed off the toll roads but faced a 4-hour daily commute on the perpetually congested freeways in Austin. Buried under mounting bills, an ever longer commute, and with fines increasing $4,000 every four months, this native Texan sold her home and was forced to leave the state altogether. She now owes over $32,000.
She’s terrified to find out Texas law penalizes you under the criminal code for failure to pay toll bills, jeopardizing her job in healthcare where she has to keep a clean record or face losing her career (and her ability to make a living). Every time she’s called the state to work out a payment plan, they deny her request and the fines just keep compounding. For this former Austin resident, she sees no way out. At 56 years old, she doesn’t see how she can possibly repay $32,000 with less than a decade left before retirement.
Her story isn’t unique, thousands of Texans have swarmed to a Facebook community under the moniker of Texas Toll Road Class Action Lawsuit to tell their stories of exorbitant and unfair toll fines and fees that are ruining their lives. With few options to get out from under the brutal toll bills, toll collection abuses jeopardize the Texas economic miracle and appeal to living here.
Relief may be on the horizon as Paxton considers issuing a legal opinion that could change course. The Attorney General has six months to render his opinion. SB 312’s cap on fines and fees officially take effect on state operated toll projects in March 2018, but it won’t help the thousands who are already in a hopeless cycle of an inability to pay their toll bills. Expect lawmakers to face that conundrum in 2019.
Note: The names of the drivers in this story have been kept anonymous due to fear of reprisals for speaking out.