PLANO, Texas (KXAN) — The mood is romantic, lights are dim, soft music plays in the background.
A couple dressed up laughs as the waiter drops off their check.
It’s a first date.
“This was great, and you even look like your profile,” she says as her date takes out a 25% off coupon clipped from a newspaper.
“Is that a coupon?” she asks.
“Yeah — well… ” he responds shyly.
“I love saving money, too. You should get a TollTag and save on tolls,” she points out excitedly, gesturing with her felt arm.
“Baby, I have a TollTag,” he says confidently.
The 32-second video featuring puppets is part of a campaign encouraging drivers to save money on tolls by getting a TollTag — and it’s part of an effort in North Texas that emphasizes a customer-first approach.
The North Texas Tollway Authority, or NTTA explained the TollTag is the most cost effective and efficient way to pay for tolls. It is a sticker mounted on the windshield and uses a radio frequency to communicate with tolling equipment, which automatically deducts tolls from a driver’s prepaid TollTag account.
NTTA said the puppets have become ambassadors delivering a message in a funny and relatable way that focuses on drivers.
“We have to be customer focused. We provide a service. We’re asking people, ‘please drive on our roads.’ We have to make it worth their while,” said Michael Rey, media relations manager with NTTA. “We know that they have — when they’re going to work or going to a concert or something else that’s a non regular event for them — they have a choice about how to get there.”
KXAN investigators have been looking into ongoing billing and customer service problems with TxTag, the toll authority in Central Texas, and wanted to know how other tolling operators like NTTA are implementing creative solutions to help drivers.
Rey added about 80% of its customers use a TollTag, which he said is the cheapest and most convenient way to pay tolls — it lets customers receive the lowest toll rate.
NTTA was the first tolling agency in the country to use electronic tolling technology. The government organization owns and operates eight toll roads around Dallas-Fort Worth but its tag system works far beyond the metroplex.
“We’ve gone into partnership with all the tolling entities in Texas, and also for us, Oklahoma, Kansas. And now we just introduced many parts of Florida. And that way you can use your TollTag in other places — get the lowest rate — have the convenience and have it come onto one statement,” he said.
Data obtained by KXAN investigators shows last year it had nearly 16 million interactions with customers. NTTA explained an “interaction” could have been for anything from updating a license plate number or address, to getting or updating a TollTag, to questions about bills. The number is fewer than 2% of all its driver transactions in the same timeframe. Fewer than half a percent of that number escalated to an Ombudsman.
“If, for any reason, our customer service agents are unable to resolve a customer’s situation, we have the Ombudsman work with customers on a resolution. The Ombudsman also works with customers on any questions that may be more complex,” Rey said. “NTTA processes more than 1 billion toll transactions each year. As you can imagine with that tremendously high volume of system activity, mistakes are, unfortunately, inevitable. We are not perfect. However, it’s important to us to work with customers to resolve customer concerns or issues as quickly as we can.”
The toll operator explained the transactions include all NTTA roads, as well as TollTag transactions for parking at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, Dallas Love Airport and TEXpress Lanes in North Texas.
Other measures NTTA has in place include manually reviewing invoices generated by license plates seen for the first time on its roads. NTTA explained human eyes inspect the license plate information on the invoice and the image from when the car went through the toll to ensure accuracy.
NTTA also works with a print vendor to mail invoices and tracks the date the invoice was placed in the mail carrier’s possession. Then the countdown begins, giving customers 30 days to pay the bill before assessing a late fee.
Driver Victoria Watkins said she received letters in the mail recently notifying her of a problem. She explained that it was because there was no money in her TollTag account after being on maternity leave and not getting paid during that time.
“I just hadn’t got a chance to getting them squared away. And then finally, after I got so many — I called and tried to get them situated,” Watkins explained.
When asked by KXAN investigators how NTTA responded, she replied, “they tried to waive some fees for me.”
Watkins said she did have to pay what couldn’t be waived.
TxTag users switch to TollTag
KXAN crowdsourced across Texas asking drivers to share their stories about TxTag and the problems they’ve encountered.
Out of over 700 emails to KXAN since April 10, at least 18 drivers said they had either switched to NTTA and haven’t had issues since or are planning to switch to NTTA.
“So I ended up dropping TxTag in favor of NTTA about 4-5 years ago. I’ve never had a single issue with NTTA, and I will NEVER go back to TxTag ever,” wrote one viewer. Another echoed the comment, saying they had “no issues” since switching years ago.
Shannon Nichols wrote that her personal vehicle has a TollTag but her family’s other vehicles use TxTag and there’s been a difference.
“My car has never had any toll notices or outstanding balances,” she said in an email. “Whereas my husband’s car, and also our two shared trucks and our trailers… have all been registered through TxTag, and we fight the system far too often.”
At least 15 drivers told KXAN while they have an NTTA tag, they have experienced a billing issue with TxTag and/or are still having those issues.
KXAN viewers aren’t the only ones who utilize TollTag — even members of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which operates other toll roads in the Austin area that can be paid for using TxTag, choose that option.
During a Board of Directors meeting in September of 2022, after CTRMA’s executive director discussed call center performance metrics, he said other tag providers including NTTA have not had issues that TxTag has had recently.
“In your spare time, if you’re interested, you might go through our parking garage here and see how many NTTA toll tags you see versus TxTags. I think you’ll see more NTTA toll tags. I’ll just leave it at that,” CTRMA Executive Director James Bass said.
NTTA explained even though a TollTag can be used across the state, it’s best to get a tag from the tolling agency in your home area. Rey added customers who have a TollTag but get a bill from another toll operator should connect with who sent the bill.
While about 80% of customers use a TollTag, the rest are pay-by-mail customers. NTTA said for those customers, it has to rely on license plate information from the DMV to identify vehicle owners, as mandated by state law.
“If a customer does not keep their DMV information current, it can cause a disruption to our connection with them. Customers sometimes forget to update the DMV with their mailing address, information on the sale of a vehicle or a change from a temporary paper license plate to permanent plate. Consequently, we don’t always receive accurate contact information for the customer,” Rey explained. “In many situations, we waive late fees and adjust invoices to the lower TollTag rate for ZipCash (pay-by-mail) customers who have outstanding invoices but they open a TollTag account.”
NTTA pointed out online that customers without a TollTag, who use pay-by-mail, are charged a higher rate for their toll road travel — at least 50% more than TollTag users.
The toll operator measures the success of the solutions through metrics. Rey explained NTTA regularly hits a 91% goal of answering customer calls within 30 seconds and targets a 93% customer satisfaction rating through a third-party survey.
“Some of those call times — we monitor that daily — and that’s reported on. We work with our customer service agents to make sure that they have the best training available. And that’s regularly updated for situations they might encounter. If somebody has difficulty solving a problem, we may retrain an agent or we may discover something that — that that needs to be looked at more closely,” Rey said.
No one-size-fits-all approach
NTTA doesn’t receive tax money, which means the money paid by drivers using tolls goes towards roads, maintaining them, paying off debt and operations.
“We sell bonds, and then that’s borrowing money, essentially. We repay those bonds by collecting tolls. So, it’s a system where we get the roads on the ground early and get people the use of the roads and then over time they are paid off,” Rey said. “It’s very similar to a home mortgage, if you will — you get the use of the home, but you still have a monthly payment.”
The International Bridge, Tunnel & Turnpike Association, which is a worldwide association for the owners and operators of toll facilities, said there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to tolls.
“It varies from agency to agency and is dictated by a host of local operating conditions and considerations. We often say, if you have seen one toll agency… you have seen one toll agency,” said Jennifer Walsh, director of communications with IBTTA.
She added part of the role of IBTTA is to bring toll agencies from across the world together to learn and discuss best practices. Walsh explained agencies that do the best job at collecting tolls have distinguished themselves through:
- Right-Sizing License Plate Transactions – Incentivizing use of pre-paid toll accounts. Transponder-based transactions provide the most certain and accurate toll transaction creation.
- Address Acquisition – Establishing effective working relationships and information exchange with the DMV for driver addresses.
- Image Capture and Review – Minimizing leakage due to unreadable license plate images through the system and technical improvements to cameras, optical character recognition and manual image review processes.
- Payment Options – Creating new ways for motorists to pay their tolls including retail location networks and mobile payment apps.
- Invoicing – Ensuring invoices are simply communicated and easily understood in terms of the transactions included, payment options and addressing account questions.
- Debt Collection and Enforcement – Pursuing best practices in debt collection and use of collection agency service contracts with effective and fair enforcement mechanisms.
- Interstate Toll Violation Reciprocity – Understanding the nature and requirements behind the limited number of existing interstate violations reciprocity agreements among states and the pathways to successful implementation.
Last year, IBTTA awarded NTTA with the 2022 Toll Excellence Award. The toll operator was recognized for its customer service and marketing outreach featuring the puppet ambassadors encouraging drivers to open a TollTag account.
“Our values at NTTA include creating an environment of ideas that not only benefits North Texas and our customers, but also pushes the boundaries on what successful tolling can be,” said James Hofmann, CEO/Executive Director of NTTA in a press release. “It is humbling and rewarding to have our peers see the value in those efforts, specifically the creativity in our marketing campaign and its ability to track measurable results. This recognition helps fortify our determination to continue finding new and innovative ways to show drivers the value of tolling and the TollTag as part of transportation solutions worldwide.”