AUSTIN (KXAN) -- The Texas Department of Transportation announced Wednesday that it's waiving $1.3 billion in late fees for toll drivers who failed to pay their bills on time.
The changes come after a year-long KXAN investigation which revealed the state agency sent 2.2 million debtor accounts to collections last year alone. KXAN has heard from hundreds of toll users, some who owed thousands of dollars in late fees alone and others who claim their bills were sent to the wrong address.
TxDOT says the late fees that will be waived total $1.3 billion and were assessed between 2007 and March 1, 2018 — the date a new law capping toll late fees at $48 annually went into effect. Tolls will only be waived for TxDOT-operated toll roads, all of which are affected by the new cap.
"March 1 is a new day and is being considered to be a new day in the system and so rather than trying to carry forward two different violation policies within the system, the decision has been made where [we are] only moving forward with the current one, in compliance with Senate Bill 312," TxDOT executive director James Bass said Wednesday before the House Committee on Transportation. "All of the earlier late fees are no longer being pursued."
Senate Bill 312 requires TxDOT-operated toll roads to cap administrative fines for nonpayment of tolls at $6 per transaction and $48 a year.
TxDOT is implementing the new law by charging late fees per invoice instead of per toll transaction.
The new fee structure utilizes late fees of $4 per invoice, with a $48 cap for a 12-month period. Under the previous fee structure, Perdue Brandon Fielder Collins & Mott, the collections agency TxDOT sub-contracted with, charged a $25 collections fee per individual toll violation. The agency is no longer collecting on behalf of TxDOT.
The state agency made its announcement to waive fees in response to a question Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, asked during Wednesday's House Transportation meeting. The news comes after multiple inquiries from lawmakers and KXAN and six weeks after the law capping late fees went into effect, even though Pickett says they've known about the new law about a year. Pickett said he was surprised by TxDOT's decision.
"They should have had this in place March 1, not April 18," Pickett said. "They did the right thing. I appreciate them doing the right thing. Just took them six weeks longer to do it."
Bass said they had to work with "our bond counsel and every other interested parties to advise the market that this is the path we are going on."
TxDOT says the decision to waive fees allow them to hit "reset" and was done in the spirit of good customer service. It will be easier for the agency to operate using only one late fee structure rather than having to collect fees using both the previous and new fee structure, the agency said.
"We never expected to collect the majority of this money so it was never about the fee structure before. It was never about collecting money," Bass said. "It was trying to encourage people to do the right thing to make payment on their tolls."
'We never expected to collect the majority of this money...'
TxDOT says the changes won’t happen overnight and it could be weeks before affected customers notice the late fees removed from their account balances. If customers paid any late fees before the law went into effect on March 1, they won't be refunded, Pickett said.
Last year, drivers paid $21.7 million in collection fees, according to an open records request. An additional $2.1 million in collection fees were paid this January and February before the law capping fees went into effect on March 1.
"We very much appreciate those who did the right thing and paid their tolls and any late fees associated with those late payments," TxDOT spokesman Bob Kaufman said on Wednesday.
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