Investigative Summary:

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) — Joe Hanson’s job repairing and consulting on screen printers takes him all over Texas. 

“As far north as you can go, as far south as you can go, I have customers, so I do a lot of driving,” he said.

With all the time Hanson spends on the road, he usually pays more than $100 a month in tolls. For years, he’s relied on a TxTag — the system that touts itself as making it easy to pay tolls in Central Texas. He opted for its AutoPay feature: every few weeks, when his balance dips below a certain amount, TxTag pulls straight from his bank account to replenish the money in his account.

			After months of back-and-forth over toll bills, Central Texas driver Joe Hanson says he is fed up. (KXAN Photo/ Avery Travis)

After months of back-and-forth over toll bills, Central Texas driver Joe Hanson says he is fed up. (KXAN Photo/ Avery Travis)

Since 2015, KXAN has been investigating different complaints about the TxTag billing, operations and customer service systems. Problems with automatic payment, specifically, have been a top concern for years.

In February 2022, Hanson’s bank records showed only one charge from TxTag. By March and April, his bank records showed zero charges from TxTag. Hanson said his driving habits didn’t change, and he didn’t log in to make any changes to his account. It’s why he didn’t notice an issue for several months. 

“We had it for so long, and it had just gone so smooth,” he said. “It makes no sense, and we’ve been paying $50 every single time. We hit the threshold for years. What happened?”    

When Hanson began receiving bills in the mail in August 2022, he was shocked. He said he called to figure out what went wrong but was told a different amount was owed than the number listed on the bill. Because of the confusion, he went in-person to the Austin customer service office to clear up the matter and pay his bill manually.

“And basically said, ‘Are we good?’ ‘Yes, we’re good.’ So, I left,” he explained to KXAN.

The next month, however, he received another bill in the mail.

Hanson said it took several calls and another visit to the office before a customer service agent discovered his AutoPay feature had been set to pull out $0.

However, Hanson’s problems didn’t stop there. Since the money hadn’t been coming out of his TxTag account, invoices for unpaid tolls started coming from the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, or CTRMA, which operates some of the toll roads in the area.

Drivers can use their TxTag to pay these tolls under an agreement between the mobility authority and the Texas Department of Transportation. Hanson said he doesn’t believe he owes CTRMA any money, as he was trying to fund his TxTag account the whole time. 

“None of this adds up. I don’t know if any of the money I gave them — over $1,000 — went towards any of this. It doesn’t kind of look that way,” he said. “Being a person that wants to stay on top of their life and their bills and everything else, and having some entity take that away from you? That’s very, very frustrating.”

Auto pay problems

In the last few years, more than a dozen KXAN viewers sent us problems and concerns very similar to Hanson’s about accounts that were supposed to be set to auto pay. Nearly 20 more said they got billed by-mail at a higher rate, or hit with late fees, when they thought they should have been charged through their TxTag account.

KXAN investigators obtained the Texas Department of Transportation’s complaint records about TxTag for the last 3 years. The records show as many as 184 customers had problems related to automatic payment, accounting for more than 20% of the total complaints in that timeframe.

KXAN obtained a log of more than 800 TxTag complaints submitted to TxDOT from January 2020 through January 2023. According to a KXAN analysis of the complaints, roughly 75% were TxTag related, with most of those referencing auto pay issues, customer service and billing problems and incorrect tolls. About a quarter of the complaints were directed at other regional mobility or toll authorities, or they were not toll related. Source: TxDOT (KXAN Interactive/David Barer)

In the past, the Texas Department of Transportation, which oversees the system, has pointed to customers’ own problems keeping their account information up to date, but eventually leadership admitted problems with the previous vendors paid to operate the system. Over the years, KXAN learned many of these vendors were hit with financial penalties by the state for not meeting performance records. At least one vendor was fired.

In an interview in 2023, TxDOT leadership said its new vendors were “making tremendous progress” working through some of the problems left behind by its previous vendors —particularly issues affecting TxDOT’s tolling partners, such as CTRMA.

Director Marc Williams said, “We’ve seen a significant reduction in those types of issues, as far as TxTag is concerned. But again, we’re not — we’re not satisfied until we continue to see improvement across the board for all of us.”

Trouble with tolling partners

CTRMA said when a driver with a TxTag transponder passes through one of its toll plazas, it tries to bill their TxTag account several times. If that doesn’t work, it sends them an invoice by-mail at a higher rate.

CTRMA said its roads are “tagnostic,” meaning the same process is in place for people using TollTags issued by the North Texas Tollway Authority or EZ TAG from the Houston-area authority.

“Being that we are in the same region as TxDOT, the vast majority (approximately 80%) of the Mobility Authority’s electronic tag payers are TxTag customers,” according to a document provided to KXAN by CTRMA. “Therefore, many of our customers are impacted when there is an issue within the TxTag back office.”

In the past, the mobility authority has acknowledged other problems when trying to bill TxTag customers, specifically. In 2022, CTRMA announced it did not trust TxTag’s data and even stopped billing TxTag customers for tolls, for a time. 

Records obtained by KXAN investigators show, in the summer and fall of 2022, when CTRMA began billing TxTag customers again, TxDOT “rejected” hundreds of thousands of transactions a month — meaning CTRMA sent those customers bills by-mail. The data show more than 2 million of these kind of transactions occurred in June 2022. By March 2023, that number was 466,796.

CTRMA attempts to bill TxTag customers through TxDOT, but a certain number of those transactions are rejected each month. When a driver’s TxTag can’t be billed, CTRMA sends them a Pay-by-Mail bill. This chart shows the number of TxTag transactions that were rejected each month. In some months the number of rejections dips to zero because CTRMA stopped billing TxTag customers due to TxTag data issues during that timeframe. Source: CTRMA (KXAN Interactive/David Barer)

Hanson showed KXAN a letter he received in early 2023 from CTRMA, saying he had been placed on its Habitual Violator list because of unpaid tolls. Drivers on this list have a block placed on their vehicle registration, meaning they cannot renew it. It also prohibits these drivers from using roads operated by CTRMA.

CTRMA records KXAN obtained show more than 11,000 drivers had been placed on the Habitual Violator list since September 2021.  

According to information CTRMA provided, the program was implemented in late 2019 “to address habitual non-payment of tolls by chronic violators to ensure fairness to the many drivers who pay their bills on time.”

It defines a habitual violator as a registered owner of a vehicle who has been issued two notices of nonpayment for an aggregate of 100 or more unpaid toll charges within a 12-month period, under Texas law.

KXAN asked about Hanson’s case, in particular. The spokesperson explained CTRMA could not discuss personal account information.

However, the spokesperson said if a customer believes they have been double billed, or sent a bill from both agencies, they have to start with TxTag to resolve the issue. The spokesperson suggested the customer ask TxTag for a credit, but also said if it is discovered the problem was on CTRMA’s end, the mobility authority will then correct it. They also noted since the TxTag system is neither owned nor managed by CTRMA, it would not be party to any of those conversations.

The spokesperson gave a hypothetical example: “There is no reconciliation process between Target and Walmart if a customer disputes charges with either entity. If an individual thought Visa had charged them incorrectly, they would discuss with Visa. Same holds true for CTRMA and TxTag. Each is a separate operating entity.”

Both CTRMA and TxTAG have told us problems often arise when a customers’ account or payment information becomes out of date or expired, and they encourage customers to log in and check, frequently.

For now, Hanson found an interesting solution. He said a CTRMA customer service representative suggested he trade his TxTag for a TollTag issued out of North Texas, since drivers can opt to pay through either tag on CTRMA-operated roads. Since making the switch, Hanson said he has been able to pay off his Toll Tag with no problems.

KXAN also reached out to TxDOT about Hanson’s case. A few days later, a TxTag spokesperson reached out to him over email, asking whether his situation had been resolved. Hanson said, at this point, he is fed up.

KXAN investigator Avery Travis joins Will DuPree to share what we found about one of the most common toll complaints: auto pay problems.

“There is a systemic problem at TxTag. I don’t know what that is, but it’s hurting me and probably lots of other people,” he said.

“I don’t know the nuts and bolts of how they work,” he continued, “but it ain’t working.”