TxDOT grants "toll amnesty"

Link to article here. More on the toll collection nightmare here.

TxDOT approves toll amnesty
Scofflaws would get a break on paying 90 percent of non-payment fees.

American-Statesman Staff
Thursday, July 30, 2009

SAN ANGELO — Toll violators on Texas Department of Transportation turnpikes will be forgiven up to 90 percent of nonpayment fees if they pay the overdue tolls and sign up for electronic toll tags, under an amnesty program approved today by the Texas Transportation Commission.

By offering to forego payment of the lion’s share of $58.4 million owed in late fees, TxDOT hopes to collect much of the $3.2 million in unpaid tolls. But officials said today that there hasn’t been a comparable program on other Texas toll roads, so they couldn’t predict what percentage of scofflaws might be enticed to pay up by the offer.

The amnesty applies to four toll roads in Central Texas and one in Tyler.

“What we’ve been able to piece together is if you approach something like 90 percent, you’re liable to get more participation,” said Phil Russell, TxDOT’s assistant executive director of innovative project development.

Details of how the amnesty will work will be released in a few weeks, TxDOT said.

To date, about 140,000 cars have run up more than 2.9 million unpaid tolls, according to TxDOT. The amnesty of 60 to 90 days — TxDOT is officially calling it a “toll recovery” period — will likely begin Sept. 1 or shortly thereafter, TxDOT officials said.

Rental car companies will not be eligible for the amnesty.

And it will not apply to tolls rung up and unpaid on the 183-A toll road, which is run by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, not TxDOT.

The first Austin-area toll roads opened in late October 2006 and began charging tolls in January 2007. But TxDOT, though it has billed for tolls and aggressively pursued collection from non-payers, to date has not taken anyone to court.

That will change after the amnesty period, Russell said.

“We didn’t want to be perceived to be a heavy-handed government coming in,” Russell told commission members before the vote. “We’ve had patience. But we are at the point now where we must move forward. And we will be initiating court proceedings.”

An unpaid toll can generate $25 in fees within four months. If it is referred to court, the possible tab rises to $450 for each toll.

Commissioner Ted Houghton suggested that perhaps the agency could encourage payment by the worst offenders by publishing their names in the newspaper. The American-Statesman in fact earlier this month asked TxDOT for the names of the 10 people owing the most money.

However, the portion of state law allowing TxDOT to operate toll roads explicitly prohibits it from releasing personal information about people who incur tolls. A request from the American-Statesman earlier this month to release the amounts owed by the 10 worst offenders, without their names, was referred by TxDOT to the Texas attorney general for an opinion and remains unresolved.

At today’s meeting, Russell said that the No. 1 scofflaw owes the agency $40,000 in tolls and late fees.

In other action today, the commission:

\• Approved a $31 million loan to the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority for the first phase of the U.S. 290 East tollway. The authority plans to begin a $265 million project this fall to build four flyover bridges at the U.S. 183/U.S 290 intersection along with six toll lanes and free frontage roads to east of Springdale Road, executive director Mike Heiligenstein said.

The loan will be used to buy right of way and to move utility lines for that project. The rest of the money for the project will come from a $90 million grant under the federal stimulus program, from agency funds and from bonds to be sold next year.

The agency will eventually extend the U.S. 290 tollway to near Manor.

\• Authorized spending about $6 million in federal stimulus funds for road resurfacing projects on seven Central Texas roads, including U.S. 183 between MoPac Boulevard and Burnet Road.

\• Approved a $457 million list of projects that included $83 million for buy right of way and move utilities for expansion of Interstate 35 from four lanes to six lanes in parts of Bell and McLennan counties.