700+ TxTag complaints sent to KXAN in a month. Here’s the impact
This story is part of KXAN’s “TxTag Troubles” investigative project launched May 7, 2023. Following related reports in recent years, our team rededicated its resources to this major consumer issue, after hundreds of viewers complained to us about resurfaced billing and customer service problems with the state’s tollway operator and its contracted vendors. During our reporting, the Texas Department of Transportation began reaching out to viewers who had contacted KXAN to resolve their issues, and state lawmakers renewed their approach to fixing future TxTag problems.
by: Jaclyn Ramkissoon and Josh Hinkle
AUSTIN (KXAN) — Hilary Cook was looking through her bank account earlier this year when she noticed a $20 charge from TxTag.
This would’ve been normal for Cook two years ago, but since then the mother and teacher moved to Massachusetts after living in Texas for nine-and-a-half years.
This isn’t the first time Cook noticed TxTag charges on her account after her out-of-state move, either. In the first couple months after moving, Cook saw some and took the initiative then to stop it.
“I called and shut down my account a couple months after moving here when I saw charges, and it’s on the record on the page saying my vehicle is gone, like, take it off the charging,” she explained.
But that didn’t stop the billing from happening again, at least a couple times, two years later.
“I had to contact them again and go through communications with customer service and found out that they had reloaded my card,” Cook said.
She said she complained to TxTag again, and the representatives told her it was taken care of. But even after those efforts, Cook said she was hit with a late fee.
“I was at work. I’m a new mom, I was pumping, and they’re telling me I have to call this other person, and it was just a nightmare,” she said.
Cook is not the only one impacted by a TxTag billing problem, though.
She’s just one of hundreds of drivers who contacted KXAN since mid-April about their back-and-forths with the toll operator.
“I feel like they’re telling me it’s resolved, but I have no faith in that, because supposedly it was resolved two years ago, supposedly it was resolved two months ago, and then again it just keeps happening,” Cook said.
Collecting your TxTag Troubles
Since 2020, KXAN has consistently received ReportIt tips from our viewers sharing issues with TxTag.
As we prepared to publish a team investigation into continued issues, KXAN launched a crowdsourcing effort on April 10 to have viewers tell us how concerns about TxTag’s billing and customer service have impacted them.
In a form posted on KXAN.com, Central Texans were able to provide their contact information and a brief description of their TxTag problem. Submissions through the form were sent directly to the inboxes of the KXAN Investigates team.
Within the first day of the form being posted, viewers submitted 219 complaints. Through May 2, we received more than 700 submissions.
The complaints detailed a wide range of problems.
Some viewers said they were being charged for vehicles they didn’t own, while others had a hold on their vehicle registration because of charges they said they didn’t receive a notice for.
We reached out to several of those viewers who submitted their stories to further discuss their TxTag troubles on camera. You can watch portions of their interviews in the video carousel at the top of this article.
The impact on drivers
For some Texas drivers, the impact of TxTag bills extended as far as having to face law enforcement.
Rudy Marroquin, who commutes all over Central Texas and the Hill Country for work, said he was pulled over five times this year alone because he was labeled a “habitual toll violator,” even though he’s had an active account for about five years with a card on file for auto pay.
“If I’m going to a meeting, I’m late because I’m pulled over, I can’t really tell my clients, ‘Hey, I got pulled over,’ right?” Marroquin said.
He also said while law enforcement was communicating that he owed TxTag $2,250, his online account only showed about $500 for his outstanding balance.
“Well, I shouldn’t owe them anything, because I have had an active account, like I said, since 2018, 2019,” Marroquin said.
For Melba Sanchez in northwest Austin, the impacts were financial after getting hit with a $3,000 bill.
Sanchez said she was on the phone with TxTag customer service for three hours trying to get to the bottom of it.
“And [the representative] found that after three hours that there were 11 different license plates attached to my account that I was being charged for,” she said.
Her balance was corrected about one week after the phone call, but Sanchez, who is trying to save up for a house, said she did have to contribute some of her own money.
“I had to pay $467 of toll bills,” she said.
“It hurt me financially, of course,” Sanchez continued. “But you know, they’re stating that you can’t renew your registration if you don’t have your tolls up … So, I mean, I had to get it done.”
Beyond the complaints
We took KXAN viewers’ frustrations, compiled them into a shared, secure online spreadsheet and emailed an invite-only link to Texas Department of Transportation officials on April 10.
Within minutes of receiving KXAN’s email, the agency requested and was given access to the spreadsheet — after which its history indicates the user “txtaganalytics” began reviewing and sorting data in it. As the complaints continued to mount, KXAN updated the spreadsheet for the agency and followed up for progress on its promise to review and respond to customers we sent them.
Following a March 29 Texas Transportation Commission planning meeting, TxDOT leadership and staff indicated on-camera they would “help out” and “get solutions” for drivers after we told them about the toll-related complaints we received from viewers.
“It sounds like you all are hearing some specific information,” TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams told KXAN on-camera. “Let’s take a look at those specific details and get solutions.”
“If you can send us those specific issues, we are happy to help out,” Media Relations Director Adam Hammons added, standing next to the agency’s chief.
Weeks after first sending the spreadsheet, KXAN received a new response from Hammons. Though the complaints had been made available to TxDOT and user history showed the agency had started reviewing the data, he indicated the effort assured less than a month earlier would not continue with the spreadsheet.
“Moving forward, our staff will focus on customer complaints received through TxTag customer service,” Hammons said in an email. “Soliciting customer comments through unaffiliated websites only causes confusion and actually delays a response, partly because many customers may already be in the system, and a new list would duplicate efforts to recognize and resolve their issues.”
Hammons provided no documented proof KXAN’s efforts to connect frustrated customers with the agency led to any of the outcomes he described. Our team replied, asking to what degree TxDOT was aware many customers have already contacted the agency but “failed to receive a response or resolution — often for an extended period of time, while their financial situations further escalated?”
A week later, in an email reply sent two days before the publication of this story, Hammons asserted, “TxDOT remains committed to working with KXAN to look into customer complaints, but KXAN has a role to play in doing a practical amount of research first.”
Hammons then requested that KXAN make a “reasonable amount of effort” to independently “determine if those who are submitting complaints have worked with TxTag customer service first to address their concerns and have valid issues that remain unsolved.” He added that the “vast majority of issues are resolved immediately or within a few days” when customers reach out to TxTag, but he again did not provide proof of that claim or that reviewing complaints sent to KXAN “duplicates efforts… and takes time and attention away from those customers who are working through TxTag customer service.”
“Reaching out to a TV station will not get an issue resolved any faster,” Hammons continued.
This, despite Hammons reaching out to KXAN a month earlier when KXAN’s crowdsourcing campaign launched, requesting the station’s tip submission form include language encouraging viewers to first reach out to TxTag customer service to resolve problems. KXAN agreed to that wording and listed it in that form and several related stories:
For any questions or issues with your TxTag bill or account, please reach out to TxTag first. You can call their customer service line at 1-888-468-9824, chat with a representative online, submit an online inquiry, or stop by in-person at one of their customer service centers.
Despite that language addition, the fact that KXAN does not have access to TxTag customer accounts and the previous assurance that TxDOT would review complaints KXAN provided to the agency, Hammons qualified in his latest email, “We hope that KXAN will join us in encouraging customers to first reach out to TxTAG to address any questions or issues. We remain committed to working with KXAN to look into any complaints that KXAN has researched and validated that the customer has recently sought assistance from TxTag and their issue remains unresolved.”
However, beyond the video interviews highlighted in this report, the hundreds of other stories KXAN collected during its month of crowdsourcing would continue being a valuable tool for customer accountability. Our team told lawmakers about those complaints, leading to meaningful dialogue at the State Capitol — and possible policy changes down the road. And we continued to press TxDOT for answers based on what we learned from viewers, also repeating our request for the agency to reconsider its decision not to review the spreadsheet and instead uphold its promise to Texas drivers.