North Texas Tollway Authority faces legal clampdown

Remember the good old days when a motorist drove through a tollbooth and handed over change? Ever since the North Texas Tollway Authority went modern and started billing drivers who don’t have a TollTag, problems have arisen. Ask Sallie Griffith of Fort Worth.

She got up at 3 a.m. recently to drive to Austin to testify before a Senate committee looking at a measure to rein in the authority’s billing powers.

At the hearing, she testified that after paying a $23 toll bill late, she continued to receive “repetitious and confusing” bills, each for a higher amount because of penalties. Eventually, her $23 check was returned as unacceptable because her fines reached $954. She was told she had to pay in person. She negotiated the penalties down to $446.

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“People feel a little ripped off,” she said. “I definitely agree that people need to pay their fines, but $900 on $24? That’s just insane.”

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Griffith was one of 160 Texans who followed The Watchdog’s advice and wrote Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, to complain about the authority’s billing practices.

Her early morning drive paid off. On Thursday, Nelson’s bill to limit billing practices — co-sponsored by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth — was approved by a committee and sent to the full Senate for a vote. A similar bill has been offered in the House by Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington.

Senate Bill 469 would limit the authority to one $25 invoice fee for drivers who pay within 30 days of receiving a notice regardless of the number of missed tolls. Fees would be capped at $225 on a second notice.

Nelson said she is fighting the authority’s practice of allowing “relatively small unpaid toll bills to balloon into invoices totaling hundreds — in some cases thousands — of dollars.”

A spokeswoman for the authority said it supports the Senate bill.

The authority says penalties for late payments and other administrative fees account for 4 percent of revenue. Nelson’s legislation would undoubtedly cut that revenue.

The authority is being attacked on several fronts.

Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, has introduced a bill that would require the authority to be reviewed by the state Sunset Advisory Commission before 2013. State agencies must face sunset reviews every so often. They often force changes in practices and, in rare cases, can lead to an agency’s dissolution.

More state oversight is also the goal of a bill offered by Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, that would subject the authority to state audits as if it were a state agency.

Also, a federal lawsuit filed in Dallas on behalf of four drivers says the authority is illegally assessing late penalties for all unpaid tolls, even when the tolls are combined into a single invoice. Lawyer Thomas Corea hopes to have the lawsuit certified for a class action.

The authority declined to comment on the lawsuit. “The authority has recognized its need for improvements and made strides to further increase oversight and review,” spokeswoman Susan Slupecki said. She cited as examples the creation of an internal audit function and a review of its financial procedures.

A sunset review, she said, would “complicate the process of selling bonds to finance projects, as the capital markets would not react favorably to the risk of third-party intervention to which they have no recourse.”

The authority insists that its billing system is accurate, but drivers told The Watchdog and Nelson that bills sometimes don’t arrive at the correct address.

The authority says it receives weekly address-change updates from the Department of Motor Vehicles and checks addresses through another database before sending out notices. Still, human error sometimes enters.

Katrina Daugherty of North Richland Hills said that for six months she kept receiving bills for a vehicle that wasn’t hers.

“I have placed several calls to NTTA,” she told me. “Responses to my calls have included the acknowledgment of the need for better proofreaders [of license plates in photos] and the need for better cameras. One customer service agent laughed at me.”

She said she was also placed on hold for 30 minutes after being disconnected twice.

“It was the biggest rigmarole,” she said. “Whoever is driving this car is not getting the bills. So if something comes up, and they get stopped and they’re told, ‘Hey, you owe NTTA,’ they’ll say: ‘What are you talking about? I didn’t get a bill.'”

The authority acknowledges that its “optical character recognition” software misread the vehicle’s license plate and mistakenly billed Daugherty.

“Cases like these aside,” Slupecki said, “the NTTA realizes that honest mistakes happen and confusion occurs. Ms. Daugherty brought the error to our attention, and we fixed it.”

That’s what’s happening in Austin. At least 160 frustrated drivers, state senators and representatives are bringing mistakes and overreaches to public attention. They are trying to fix that, too.

Note: As of early May 2010, Senate Bill 469 had passed in the Senate on a unanimous voice vote. It then went to the Texas House.

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