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.
AUSTIN (KXAN) — Miriam Kirk knows her way around numbers.
The Jarrell resident has been a contract bookkeeper for more than 20 years, helping people resolve issues with their personal and business budgets.
“I’m excellent at what I do,” Kirk said. “I’m very good at it.”
Still, for someone who’s spent decades communicating in calculations, Kirk told KXAN there’s one she cannot crack: TxTag.
Operated by the Texas Department of Transportation, “TxTag makes paying tolls easy.” There are more than 3.1 million active TxTags as of April 1, according to the TxTag website.
“The thin TxTag sticker goes on the inside of your windshield behind your rearview mirror,” the website says. “An electronic reader above the toll roads sends a signal to the microchip inside the sticker, and tolls are automatically deducted from your prepaid TxTag account.“
But Kirk said for the past few years, she’s been in the dark about what she owes TxTag.
“I haven’t received anything from them in two years, maybe longer,” Kirk said. “I used to get that email that said, ‘You have a new statement online, click here to log in,’ and you could see your statement. You can see everything. And I don’t get any emails from them anymore. I don’t get anything from them anymore.”
Miriam Kirk Reaches Out To KXAN
“I have been arguing, emailing, begging, pleading to get emails detailing when I have a balance due. I haven’t received anything since 2020. I randomly logged on 1 day because we took a trip to SA and used the toll road and I thought it was odd I hadn’t received any emails. Come to find out I owed $$$ of dollars. You can’t see what they charge you, you can’t see where, when or which vehicle. Asking, emailing, calling TXTAG is such a waste of time. They can’t get this fixed, but they have the F1 canned response perfected when you email. They dismiss you and give you the old garbage responses and make it seem like you’re too stupid to look it up on the account or know how to look something up that doesn’t exist.”
Instead of an itemized statement in the mail or online, Kirk said she gets a total amount due, but that’s only if she happens to look at her account on the TxTag website. Because of that, Kirk is not confident the amounts are correct.
“How did they come up to that amount?” Kirk asked. “You don’t know. And it didn’t tell you if there are any fees. Now, they say they weren’t charging any fees, but how do I know?”
Kirk said she has sent emails and called but doesn’t get any help, and now just pays the bills to avoid additional late fees being tacked on.
KXAN asked TxDOT about Kirk’s problem. We’re still waiting to hear back.
How much toll revenue is generated in the Austin area?
Right now, the Austin metro has 10 toll roads in total. TxDOT operates four of those: most of State Highway 130 in the east, State Highway 45 N and Loop 1 in the north and State Highway 45 SE in the south.
The other six are operated by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, or CTRMA. That agency is responsible for 183A, 183S, 290E, 71E, State Highway 45 SW and the MoPac Express Lane.
Last fiscal year, the four TxDOT-operated roads generated more than $205 million in toll revenue, a 157% increase over the past decade, according to traffic and revenue studies that are released every few years.
CTRMA has seen an even greater increase, with toll revenue up 606% over the past decade as new toll roads opened to the public. Last fiscal year, the agency took in more than $176 million from tolls, according to a revenue summary posted online. CTRMA operates on a slightly different fiscal year calendar from TxDOT, so KXAN adjusted the CTRMA data in order to make direct comparisons with TxDOT data.
That means across the Austin region, more than $381 million in toll revenue was generated last fiscal year alone.
“That wouldn’t even be considered one of the larger agencies,” said Kevin Hoeflich, a professional engineer with more than 30 years of experience. Hoeflich works for national consulting firm HNTB, which consults with toll agencies and transportation departments, advising them on things like engineering decisions, design work and construction management. He has no connection to TxDOT or TxTag.
“There are some large statewide systems out there that are toll systems that collect significantly more revenue than that,” Hoeflich said. “For the regional type that you’re talking about, that sounds like — without having the financial reports — that sounds like reasonable numbers.”
Projections released in January show TxDOT is forecasting that by 2042, the agency will collect about $707 million annually from toll revenue in Central Texas. CTRMA’s most recent forecast, from 2021, shows the agency taking in $644 million from tolls in 2042 and almost $1 billion by 2055. CTRMA says toll revenue helps to cover routine maintenance on the roads, as well as future infrastructure expansion.
TxDOT-operated SH 130 currently brings in the most money from tolls. The agency collected more than $127 million from that road alone last fiscal year. 183A generated the most toll revenue for CTRMA, at almost $72 million.
Though toll roads may not be popular with some drivers, Hoeflich says tolls help agencies build roads when other funding sources, including gas tax revenue, aren’t enough. Toll roads typically don’t use gas tax funds. Instead, the agency borrows money so it can build the road. Drivers then pay tolls when using the road so the agency can pay off its debt.
“The concept of a toll road is to be able to build a road that probably otherwise couldn’t have been financed,” Hoeflich said. “Should every road be a toll road? Absolutely not. But there are some cases where toll roads make more sense than having no road. Really, it’s not a tax, it’s a user fee because it’s your choice whether you want to use the facility or not.”
How and when do late fees get added to toll bills?
Most toll road users have a TxTag or similar toll tag. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, about two-thirds of drivers on TxDOT’s local toll roads paid using their tag. That dropped to about 54% in FY 2022.
If a vehicle doesn’t have a toll tag, a photo of the license plate is taken at the pay point, and an invoice is mailed to the address associated with that license plate.
According to the TxTag website, if a driver doesn’t pay a toll bill, a $4 late fee is added to the next month’s bill. If the driver still doesn’t pay, the same amount is added again for the following month. That’s in addition to a $1.15 statement fee each time to cover mailing costs.
After three months with no payment, the debt is eligible to be turned over to a debt collection agency. KXAN requested data from TxDOT to see how often this happens, but it did not provide it to us. Drivers can also be taken to court, with a fine up to $250.
TxDOT documents show its Customer Service Center, or CSC, took in about $12.7 million in fees from Austin-area roads in 2014. At that time, it projected CSC revenue would grow to more than $20 million annually by 2022, and $30 million by 2038.
But in 2017, state lawmakers amended the Texas Transportation Code to cap fees for delinquent toll users to $48 a year. Because of that, TxDOT has not publicly reported CSC revenue totals for the roads in the Austin region since its 2014 report.
The agency did provide KXAN statewide figures showing fee revenue up to the most recent fiscal year. TxDOT collected more than $12.2 million in fees from drivers across the state in FY 2022, on top of more than $509 million in toll revenue.
That means fee revenue only accounted for about 2.3% of all revenue last year, down from 5.5% in FY 2020 and 8.8% in FY 2017.
The late fee cap only applies to roads operated by TxDOT, meaning other agencies, like CTRMA, can charge more in late fees if they choose to.
CTRMA charges a $15 late fee every month up to three months, meaning it uses its own cap of $45. After that point, legal action can be taken against the driver. Data from CTRMA shows the agency took in about $13 million in fees last fiscal year, up from about $9.9 million the year before.
Both TxDOT and CTRMA also have a Habitual Violator Program for drivers who consistently don’t pay tolls. Drivers can be banned from toll roads if they have more than 100 unpaid tolls in a one-year period and if they’ve been sent at least two notices of non-payment. If a driver is caught by law enforcement on a toll road after being banned, their vehicle may be impounded and renewal of their vehicle registration may be blocked.
CTRMA has added more than 11,000 drivers to its banned list just since September 2021, some of whom have thousands of unpaid tolls. Those on the list can contact CTRMA to arrange payment to clear their status and vehicle bans. Payment plans are offered under certain circumstances.
KXAN asked TxDOT how many drivers were on its habitual violator list, but it did not provide the data.
How much gets refunded to drivers?
There are instances when things go wrong. KXAN has heard from drivers who say they get duplicate charges every time they use a toll road. Others are getting bills for vehicles they no longer own.
KXAN previously reported TxTag refunded more than $11.7 million because of overcharges linked to a system upgrade in 2020. TxDOT also provided us with more recent data, showing more than $872,000 was refunded to customers statewide last year.
The figure was much higher in 2019, when almost $2.5 million was refunded to customers.
Between January 2020 and January 2023, TxDOT refunded almost $3 million to drivers across the state. CTRMA refunded more than six-times that amount during the same time period. The agency told KXAN it adjusted more than 1.6 million toll bills, to the tune of almost $19 million.
CTRMA does give one-time waivers to drivers who unknowingly drove on a toll road or missed a due date. Other changes to bills are considered Customer Service Representative, or CSR, adjustments — such as when a customer calls to resolve a toll balance or correct a billing error —or backend adjustments, which are system-facilitated credits given to drivers to resolve processing issues or grant payment grace periods. As an example, CTRMA says it deployed a widespread grace period during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Adjustments also include removing bills for exempt vehicles, such as emergency services, public transportation and qualified veterans, which shouldn’t have been charged in the first place.
Data from CTRMA shows CSR adjustments are the most common, with more than 450,000 in 2022 alone.
We also calculated how much the average bill is adjusted. CSR adjustments last year took an average of $11.86 off each bill. Backend adjustments took off an average of $7.80.
Kirk says she doesn’t know if she needs to request a bill adjustment because she’s not getting an itemized total of tolls or fees. Her issue, she says, is with TxDOT, not CTRMA. Again, TxDOT did not release any data to us showing how often they adjust bills or by how much.
“I want transparency,” Kirk said. “I want it broken out.”