Now is the time, if ever, to stop excessive billing practices by the North Texas Tollway Authority

The 2011 Texas Legislature offers lawmakers the chance to provide more oversight of how the North Texas Tollway Authority collects fines and fees on unpaid toll bills.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, is preparing a bill that would lower the fees and penalties charged to motorists on top of their tolls.

State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, has already introduced Texas Senate Bill 343 which lowers the amount a toll authority can charge for an administrative fee from $100 to $50. However, NTTA does not charge the maximum fee of $100 — and its bills are still considered extraordinarily high by those who complain.

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Motorists complain that a 45-cent toll bill can end up costing hundreds of dollars by the time NTTA is done billing those who haven’t paid.

For the past year, The Watchdog asked readers who complained about the NTTA’s practices to send Nelson their complaints in writing to help lawmakers understand the problem. Nelson’s staff said last week that her office has received 140 written complaints. She is still collecting them.

As readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber Watchdog column learned first, Sen. Nelson explains: “I am working on legislation to lower the cap on administrative fees that the NTTA can charge, and to have those capped fees apply to the entire invoice regardless of how many separate violations are on that invoice.

“My goal is to stop these fees from adding up to unreasonable amounts for vehicle owners, while allowing the tollway agency to reasonably cover their expenses.”

Whatever happens, the tollway authority won’t make it easy. Nelson said a year ago that when she questioned the NTTA, “they’ve been very defensive.”

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Criticism comes from the inside, too. Current NTTA Chairman Victor Vandergriff of Arlington complained in a public meeting a year ago that the authority’s budget may depend too much on penalty fees.


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Victor Vandergriff


The payment system confuses many drivers. No signs on the toll roads explain the process. The NTTA no longer uses tollbooths. Drivers who keep a TollTag on their windshield must remember to keep enough cash in their accounts.

For vehicles lacking tags, license plates are photographed and bills are mailed after the fifth transaction. Car owners billed by mail are charged 50 percent more than what TollTag users pay.

Motorists are supposed to keep their addresses up to date with the state so the bills arrive properly. Sometimes, though, car owners say they never received initial bills but learned later that they owe hundreds of dollars.

The NTTA says that it mails the letters and that if they don’t come back, it considers them delivered.

In October, I reported how a woman went to jail for 27 hours for failing to appear in court for an unpaid toll bill that she estimates was for $11.

She said she never received the bill.

I won’t defend scofflaws who don’t pay their tolls. As a TollTag account holder, I certainly don’t want to cover other people’s costs. But I was curious about how much the biggest toll runners owe. A Public Information Act request to the NTTA provided the answer.

The NTTA won’t release names, but its records show that the No. 1 scofflaw owes $72,000, followed by four drivers who each owe more than $60,000.

How you can owe that much is beyond me. The NTTA won’t say how much is for tolls and how much is for fees and penalties.

For most customers who get into trouble, though, it’s small tolls and big add-ons. Two motorists have complained to me that although they tried to pay their bills, the NTTA still sent their accounts to its collection agency.

David Spruiell of Arlington says his toll bill was for $8.56, but “I obviously misread the bill.” He mailed a check for $9.56 — $1 more. The authority sent the check back with an explanation that he had overpaid. He says he tried to call twice but gave up when the lines were tied up. Next he got a notice from a collection agency that he owes $208.

When he called to complain, an NTTA staffer told him that he could negotiate to pay less. “This is a one-time offer,” he was told. “I’ll take $138 if you pay today.”

He didn’t take the offer.

“It’s not like I didn’t try to pay,” he says. “A late fee of $10 would be acceptable, but not $200. I don’t want to have a warrant issued against me, but this is crazy and reeks of abusive misuse of a public agency.”

The NTTA says it is not equipped to handle overpayments on its pay-by-mail system.

Roger Beaman of Mansfield acknowledges that he paid his $10.45 bill three days late. His problem? He forgot to write his car’s license plate number or invoice number on the check. He has two cars in his household. When the NTTA received the check, it credited it to the wrong car.

One car had a $10.45 bill, and the other had zero. But the NTTA put the $10.45 into the zero account, giving it a credit, while the other account went delinquent.

When he called to complain, a staffer promised to fix it but never did, he says. He kept trying. One NTTA staffer told him that if he sent $7.95, it would go away. He did as he was told, but that didn’t work either. A collection agency seeks $182.

“I can say their check-handling skills with my account would get a failing grade,” he says.

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong

NTTA spokeswoman Kimberly Jackson says, “It is important that customers contact us early if they have any questions so we can work with them to resolve the issue quickly and at the lowest cost for the customer.”

Jackson says the NTTA plans to make an improvement: “We will be implementing a program in 2011 through a track-and-trace program with the U.S. Postal Service. We soon will be able to track when a letter was delivered.”

That will help, but it can’t come soon enough. The NTTA builds massive road projects, but it seems to have problems with the mail. When I called last month to order new Velcro strips for my worn TollTag, the NTTA sent me a replacement set.

Three different times.

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Read the previous Watchdog Nation report called “Here’s how to take back some of the authority from the North Texas Tollway Authority.”

Read the previous Watchdog Nation reported called “Watchdog Nation says: Give ’em hell, Victor.”

Read about the woman thrown in jail at “Women goes to jail for unpaid toll.”

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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is available in hardcover, as a CD audio book, ebook and hey, what else do you need. Visit our store. Now revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

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Comments

  1. George Neville says:

    I just sent an email to both Senators in this article requesting that the NTTA's ability to use our Court System to make up for the shortcomings of their own collections system be removed. I am also experiencing threatening letters from the NTTA, and although I have paid several invoices over the last few months, they are still trying to say that I never paid for a toll from August 20th 2010. Now I am being threatened with a traffic citation due to their incompetence.

    Something I noticed in your article also shows that they contradict their own stated policies! How could one gentleman have his check returned because "The NTTA says it is not equipped to handle overpayments on its pay-by-mail system." and yet they CLEARLY did exactly that when they processed a check for ANY amount on an account with a ZERO balance! Could you have them explain their own contradictory statements?

    Thanks Watchdog

    Here is a copy of my letter:

    Dear Senator,
    I am writing in support of Texas Senate Bill 343 after my recent harassment by their company. I pay my tolls when the bills arrive in the mail. They did not provide an opportunity to pay while driving on the toll road (Hwy 161). However, after making payments on every bill I received, I still received what I perceived as a very threatening letter, beyond what should be granted to any Private Company in the United States. It is currently April and even after paying several invoices, they still sent me a pink letter regarding a toll from August 2010 threatening to issue a Violation Notice that could result in Police Action against a Private Citizen from a Private Company! That's not American. I don't know how we granted them that authority, and how it is Constitutional.
    I believe I know how they turned Texas Transportation Code 366.178 into a Law Enforcement tool for their own incompetent collections department. When that code was written, everyone paid their toll at the toll booth itself. Violators had to deliberately run through the toll, and thus it would be reasonable that they knowingly and actively attempted to avoid paying a toll. However, those toll booths have been removed and they rely on an automated system with a web based interface and physical mail that can be lost or not delivered. They should not have been allowed to remove ALL toll booths. Citizens should still have the option to pay at the toll booth itself, meaning at least ONE toll booth should be in place, and the other lanes open to those who wish to place themselves in the hands of the incompetent NTTA, who apparently has the power to send you to jail when they can't bill you correctly or process their own invoices correctly!

    Please, remove their ability to use our Court system to make up for their incompetence.

    Thank you,

  2. Christina Johnson says:

    I'm already getting ripped off by NTTA toll fees (about $160 a month to go work Mon-Fri) and I just found out that their new policy is to no longer make deductions from zip cash invoices you receive if you have a tolltag account. In the few days that got my new car and when I transitioned from a temporary license to my plates, I was zip cash. The rep told me that I should have taken care of it. I guess when I drove my car down from Austin that should have been the first thing on my mind and when I received my plates in the mail, I should have immediately logged online to change my tolltag account. Unbelievable.

  3. It is unbelievable. It's our new way of life. Thousands of people are finding themselves tied up in this. Here's my latest story on this:

    North Texans have a new utility bill to pay — or else
    Posted Saturday, Jun. 30, 2012
    BY DAVE LIEBER
    watchdog@star-telegram.com

    Personally, I'm satisfied with my TollTag account with the North Texas Tollway Authority. I love driving the road I call the "Which-President-Bush-Is-It-Tollway?" Fast and smooth. A delight at 75 mph.

    I understand that soon, if I don't want to sit in stalled traffic, roads I've driven for free for almost two decades will cost money. I get that a drive from Interstate 35W to North East Mall at rush hour will cost around $2. I get that commuters who want to travel quickly to and from work could spend several hundred dollars a month.

    I know but don't like that our state leaders signed a 52-year contract with Cintra, a company in Spain, to build the roads. The company can raise tolls at any time. And unlike with the old Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike, tolls won't go away once the road is paid for.

    Yeah, I get that this change represents the newest utility in my life. Water. Electricity. Gas. Cable. Internet. Now toll roads.

    But a lot of folks don't get it. I hear every week from somebody who is shocked to find that $5 or $25 worth of tolls mushroomed with penalties and fees into a bill of hundreds or thousands of dollars. In extreme cases, an arrest warrant is issued.

    Unlike with the electricity and gas bills, people who don't pay their toll bills are, in rare cases, arrested and forced to spend a night in jail. Now the tollway authority says it will publish on ntta.org the names, cities of residence, ZIP codes and debt amount of its top 26,000 scofflaws.

    I don't have a problem with that, except to point out that if you don't pay your cable or Internet bill, you don't end up on a most-wanted list.

    That's because the other entities don't have the word "authority" in their name. Authority means you are quasigovernment with the powers of government behind you.

    This particular authority bungled the transformation from tollbooths staffed by people to an e-system that photographs a license plate and sends a bill by mail to those without TollTags.

    It's easy to understand the confusion. I drove 50 miles on the Which-President-Bush-Is-It-Tollway? last week, and I saw only one or two little signs that promise a bill in the mail.

    Without tollbooths and signs, what's an unknowing driver to do? How do motorists know they are supposed to get a bill after five trips and the bill goes to the address listed for the vehicle in the state Department of Motor Vehicles database? What if the address is wrong?

    The Watchdog and many readers championed a new law that took effect last year capping the administrative fee at $25 for each unpaid invoice, not to exceed $200. Previously, the authority charged $25 for every unpaid toll transaction. A single invoice could contain dozens of transactions.

    What has happened since the law took effect?

    Well, the authority has decided to use more of its authority. In addition to its most-wanted list, it no longer works with people who don't pay up after the second notice.

    Now once a customer reaches the collection agency phase — more than 90 days after the first invoice is mailed — the customer has to work with the collection agency.

    Spokeswoman Susan Slupecki said, "In the past, and as a gesture of good will, the NTTA would continue to work with customers after their invoices had been forwarded to a collection agency. The hope was that these customers would maintain a TollTag account and keep the balance in good standing.

    "What the NTTA has learned, however, is that even the new billing procedures outlined by Senate Bill 469 have not significantly changed the behavior of those customers who simply refuse to pay," she said.

    The authority says it does its best to get bills to the right people.

    It gets weekly DMV address updates and uses the U.S. Postal Service's "Track and Trace" system, which confirms placement of envelopes with invoices into a mail carrier's bag for delivery.

    The Texas Department of Public Safety is supposed to issue citations only after a vehicle's title matches the driver's license record and address.

    Recently, The Watchdog asked for help for Don Adams, 80, who said he received a delayed bill for $71 for tolls from several years before. "I ignored the bill, thinking it may have been a clerical error. … When they changed to an electronic billing system, I was confused."

    By the time his debt reached a collection agency, loaded with fees and penalties, the amount was $1,196.

    The authority says it had a bad address for Adams. When it found a good address, Adams was billed the original amount with no added costs. But he didn't pay because of his confusion.

    Slupecki told The Watchdog: "I was able to get it further reduced to $445 and have extended the due date out yet another three months. While I can understand and appreciate his situation, it's probably going to be the best we can do."

    Want to avoid this? Get a TollTag at a city hall near you. Check your account regularly, as you would a bank account. Make sure that the address on your driver's license matches the address on your vehicle registration — and that it's the address where you receive your mail.

    The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.