AUSTIN (KXAN) — “No explanation, no communication, no transparency,” wrote one KXAN viewer in March 2021, pleading for an investigation into TxTag to bring TxTag’s issues to the public’s attention.
The viewer, who wished to remain anonymous, told KXAN his troubles with TxTag, Texas’ largest tollway operator, started over two years earlier when he said he realized multiple transactions totaling $1,600 had been deducted from his TxTag auto pay account with no statements, account updates or explanations justifying the charges.
“Just charging auto pay customers at their will,” the viewer continued.
He added only after he disputed the charges with his credit card company did he eventually receive a refund from the toll agency. However, he told KXAN similar problems recurred.
His experience is like many others who consistently reached out to KXAN nearly every month with TxTag concerns since 2020.
KXAN compiled and analyzed every viewer complaint we received since 2020 and found more than 150 related to TxTag, detailing persistent themes related to billing, charges and fees, account problems, technical errors and customer service.
The overwhelming majority dealt with billing issues, which consistently overlapped with customer service issues, contested charges and concerns over additional fees.
Other account and technical-related complaints frequently related to problems paying bills, accessing account information and account owner registration errors.
Here’s a sample of some of the tips KXAN received related to TxTag:
- May 2022: “Problems with TxTag. These people are not providing monthly statements. If I go online to collect a statement, the last available statement is dated October of 2020. … I have called their office about this but all they say is that they have a new system and they are working on it. Working on it since 2020? I’ve also found that they have double charged me for tolls. I had to go to the MoPac office to get these double charges fixed which was a waste because they say they were right and I was wrong. What can be done to get TxTag to fix their statement issue?
- October 2022: “TxTag hit our account 9 times for 40 each in one day October 17th. We called and talked to someone. They said they were putting in an investigate request and that it should be reversed and fixed soon. Not only did they not reverse or fix the charges, they hit us for 3 more on October 21st and again on the 24th. My wife went to the office and they told her the charges were correct. That is 520 worth of tolls in a week. We rarely take the toll roads. … There isn’t anything regular folks can do but take it. I’m sure I’m not the first to tell you this story. Millions of dollars every day for tolls in Austin area.”
- October 2022: “I think TxTag is severely overcharging people. I am set up on an auto-replenish if my account ever goes below a certain amount. I just looked at my tolls that it’s registered this month and it was at $58.09 yet I’ve been charged $160 ((8) $20 auto-replenishment charges). I don’t know how long this has been going on for, either, which is concerning.“
When we brought questions about the tips we received to a March planning meeting among leadership at the Texas Department of Transportation — which has oversight of TxTag — the agency’s executive director, Marc Williams, told KXAN, “It sounds like you all are hearing some specific information. Let’s take a look at those specific details and get solutions.”
TxDOT Spokesperson Adam Hammons added, “If you can send us those specific issues, we are happy to help out.”
The following day, KXAN attended a meeting of the Texas Transportation Commission, where we delivered a thumb drive of all our viewer tips to Hammons. In the first few weeks after receiving the thumb drive, TxDOT informed KXAN it had already contacted dozens of customers from the most recent year of complaints collected and had reached resolutions with 10 of them, so far. Some of those customers also spoke with KXAN, verifying those interactions — some just days after our exchange with TxDOT.
In the weeks to follow, KXAN sent more than 700 new tips to TxDOT after we launched a crowdsourcing campaign asking viewers to share their stories. We used a shared, secure online spreadsheet and could see the agency requested access within minutes of receiving it.
Weeks after first sending the spreadsheet, KXAN received a new response from the agency. Though the complaints had been made available to TxDOT and user history showed the agency had started reviewing the data, Hammons 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,” he wrote 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.”
The spokesperson 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 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.”
Previous similar efforts by KXAN brought major results for customers. In 2017 and 2018, KXAN conducted an investigation related to similar TxTag issues and previous vendors, providing TxDOT hundreds of bills from viewers across the state and pressing the agency to get to the bottom of the issues. That reporting revealed 2.2 million debtor accounts turned over to collections in 2017 alone. Many of those drivers were mistakenly charged or had their bills sent to the wrong address. Following our extensive coverage, TxDOT announced it would waive $1.3 billion in late fees.
As a further result of our investigation, some state lawmakers demanded a complete overhaul of the TxTag system. After that call, the Texas Speaker of the House added the issue to a list of items for the House Transportation Committee to tackle. As more lawmakers began publicly declaring they were upset, both the governor and lieutenant governor reacted to TxDOT’s intent to build more toll roads across the state. With so many financial questions, those leaders ordered the agency to cease those plans and re-evaluate ways to deal with the state’s transportation challenges.
Legislative hearings were set to address the tollway billing problems, and KXAN learned some of the customers whose bills we originally sent to TxDOT were seeing their accounts resolved, including a waiver of many of their massive fines.
Lawmaker packets and legislation
In this legislative session, March 10 marked the last day bills could be filed for consideration. Among the 8,153 bills filed, KXAN identified at least eight related to Texas’ toll authorities that specifically address many of the issues KXAN found in its latest investigation.
- HB 4864 – Relating to the method of providing certain notices or invoices relating to toll collections by a toll project entity.
- HB 2991 – Relating to toll collection and enforcement by toll project entities; authorizing an administrative fee; imposing a civil penalty
- HB 4231 – Relating to a one-year moratorium on the collection of tolls.
- HB 2245 – Relating to vehicles eligible for toll discount programs
- HB 3843 – Relating to a study and report by the Texas Department of Transportation regarding toll project entities.
- HB 1314 – Relating to the establishment by toll project entities of a discount program for electronic toll collection customers.
- HB 2170 – Relating to toll collections by a toll project entity.
- SB 316 – Relating to toll collection and enforcement by toll project entities; authorizing an administrative fee; imposing a civil penalty.
With the possibility that any of these bills could be considered by the House and Senate transportation committees, KXAN wanted to make sure the committee members were aware of that legislation as well as the viewer complaints we received in recent years. Our team put together packets containing those items, along with a summary of the primary issues highlighted in those tips.
KXAN took the packets to the State Capitol and hand-delivered them to each of the 22 members of those committees, speaking to some members and their staffs to explain the issues viewers were experiencing.
During KXAN’s visit, our team actually passed TxDOT Executive Director Williams in the hallway and heard from some legislative offices they’d been given a “heads up” we were making the rounds under the dome.
One conversation KXAN had was with Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, who chairs the House transportation committee.
“The reality is the toll system needs to be completely reevaluated. I believe there should be an even total across the board,” Canales said, thanking KXAN for its efforts to help drivers. “Most of the stuff… that we learn comes from investigative reporting, so we appreciate what you do.”
Canales added the research brought to him by KXAN would be valuable particularly as his committee prepared to hear HB 3843 authored by Rep. Terry Wilson, R-Georgetown. It would require TxDOT to conduct a study comparing the practices and operations of toll entities across the state.
“We need people that have the political will to change the way we operate in Texas right now. We’ve reached that tipping point. So it’s kind of come to a head real quick. And I can tell you that anybody that believes that we’re in a bright spot when it comes to transportation is highly misled and misguided,” Canales said.
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According to HB 3843, the study must include a comparison of: toll operations, error rates, customer complaints, speed of processing, billing practices and “any other factors the department deems appropriate.”
Wilson told KXAN HB 3843 was created due to the continuous complaints from his constituents about TxTag’s billing system.
“These persistent and egregious issues have made it clear to everyone that something needs to be done. But before we can fix a problem, we need to fully understand what is broken, how its broken and why it broke,” Wilson said.
Wilson’s bill passed out of committee April 19 and was passed by the House in early May but — like other toll-related bills granted hearings — faces an uphill battle as it pushes forward in the legislative process and the session nears its end. If it advances to law, TxDOT would be required to complete the study by December 2024.
“TxTag was created by the legislature, and it isn’t working. It’s the legislature’s responsibility to fix what’s wrong,” Wilson said.
Within hours of KXAN wrapping up its packet deliveries, TxDOT’s director of state legislative affairs, Cory Henrickson, sent an email — obtained by KXAN through a public information request — to legislative staff and lawmakers at the Capitol, regarding our effort.
“It has come to our [attention] that KXAN News was in the Texas Capitol today engaging some legislative offices on the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) managed TxTag toll system concerning customers’ experience of TxTag,” Henrikson wrote. “Please be ensured, TxDOT is committed to providing quality customer service to all our TxTag customers, and our office is committed to working with your legislative offices to resolve TxTag-related issues and inquiries from you or your constituents as they arise.”