AUSTIN (KXAN) - Even the steepest of fines, taxes, and credit-bureau chargeshave nothing on the Texas Department of Transportation.
The state of Texas is charging motorists a 4000 percentadministrative fee for each toll they don’t pay after 112days. Some motorists – even those with the proper tags– are finding themselves with thousands in fees for just afew bucks in overdue tolls.
In Central Texas, there are 150,000 motorists who owe $3 millionin tolls. With that fee, the state of Texas could collect nearly$60 million from them.
As a matter of comparison, there's federal legislation right nowin Washington to crack down on unscrupulous credit card companieswho charge interest and fees around 30 percent.
To be fair, they've got to collect tolls to pay back the bondsthey used to build these roads. And they did offer an amnestyprogram to give violators a break; only a handful of people tookadvantage of that amnesty program.
Now, people are running scared - and facing several thousands ofdollars in toll road "adminstrative fees"
If you don't pay your federal income taxes, the IRS hits youwith a 4-percent interest rate, and a 25-percent penalty after 5months.
If you think that's too much.. you don't know what too muchis.
"It's crazy," said motorist C.C. Lopez. "It's crazy.. I can'tbelieve it."
Lopez owes more than $9,000 to TXDOT.
"I feel like I'm a criminal for driving the toll roads," shesaid.
Before you think Ms. Lopez one of those people who blows throughthe tolls without paying... she's not. She says she's always had aTXTAG and always paid.
But when she bought a new car in 2009, she took that TXTAG offthe old car, and put it on the new one. That made it invalid, andjacked her bill to more than $9,000. She called TXTAG's customerservice to work it out, and what did they tell her: Too bad. Payit.
"I said, 'Well, I need to figure out how to fix this. They'relike, 'Well, you can't.'"
(Editor's note: Clarification on $2500 below.)
Here's what 4000 percent looks like: If you go through 10 tolls,at 60 cents apiece, that's $6. And that's when the clock startsticking. You'll get at least two letters in the mail, but if it'snot paid in 112 days, that $6 dollars gets increased by $250. Statelaw then allows that to increase to $2500 as misdemeanor offensesonce those 10 late tolls (tried as individual cases) get tocourt.
To simplify: $25 per late toll, 10 late tolls, then when eachgets to court - $250 per late toll. That's $2500 from $6 in latetolls.
"The fees are only there as an incentive to really get people topay on time," said Mark Tomlinson, director of the turnpikeauthority for TXDOT.
He says by the time drivers get "administrative fees" in the4000 percent range, they've already had ample time to pay theirtolls - in other words, just under four months.
Some drivers can qualify for violation-conversion offers, andmost can set up payment plans.
Right now, there are about 150,000 drivers in Central Texas whoowe TXDOT a little more than $3 million in tolls. When you add the"administrative fees," that $3 million jumps to more than $56million, officials say - making the average 1,700 percent.
"Astounded, outraged, um.. just unbelieveable," said formerTexas State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn. "Where is commonsense and fairness?"
Strayhorn spent eight years in charge of every dollar in Texas.She says people who drive on the toll roads should pay their tolls- and if they dont, a reasonable fee. But 4000 percent, she says,is simply mismanagement.
"If they cannot clean up their own mess at TXDoT, then let theLegislature step in and do it for them," she said.
At least lawmaker says the intention of the "adminstrative fee"may have been for a drivers entire account, not for multipleviolations charged hundreds of times, over and over.
"I think when the Legislature put into the statute theserelatively high allowable fines, it was contemplating that would bethe total fine, not that it would be that times a hundred," saidRep. Mark Strama, D-Austin.
Strama has toll roads in his district, and told KXAN these"adminstrative fees" in the "multiple thousand percent" range needa closer look - and that look is soon coming. The Legislatureconvenes in 2011, and part of its duties this time around will beto vet TXDoT and all its programs.
"This agency is under Sunset Review, and frankly the SunsetReview process is designed to root out things just like this,"Strama said.
For now, however, TXDOT says you need to communicate withthem.
"This can be very damaging to individuals to have to go throughthis process, so we want to make every reasonable effort we can tolet them work with us," Tomlinson said.
Lopez said she tried.
"They would give me the information, but they would never giveme enough where I could have probably saved another $3,000 infees," Lopez said.
TXDOT's Collection agency is now calling people at home andsending letters to toll violators. But if you don't pay thecollection agency, they really have no recourse. They cannot put iton your credit report. In
fact, they cannot affect your credit,they cannot keep you from renewing your drivers license and theycannot keep you from registering your vehicle.
So TXDOT is now sending letters to people threatening to takethem to court - and tonight at ten, we'll hear from CountyOfficials who tell us that they can't do that either.
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