BUDA, Texas (KXAN) — Toll troubles are driving Stephen Heyman mad.

“The problem is they can’t get my license plate right,” he said from his bill-covered kitchen table in Buda.

Last December, he bought a specialty license plate for his wife that reads: “QIDOC.” It stands for “chi doctor.”

“She’s an acupuncturist,” said Heyman. “So, qi is chi, which is the main energy portion of acupuncture.”

The plate, however, turned out to be a pain. That’s because toll scanners have trouble reading it.

“It’s insanely frustrating,” said Heyman.

Some toll scanners are reading the license plate as “Q1D0C,” recording the letter “I” for the number one and confusing the letter “O” for a zero. The TxTag transponder, which he got in January to save money on tolls, is scanning as “invalid,” records show, because of a change in the way license plates are read.

To avoid confusion, license plates issued to the general public “do not use the characters with letters I or O,” according to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles. The letters can be used for personalized plates, like the one Heyman has.

He is now getting multiple bills from the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority.

The CTRMA does not issue transponders. It is an independent toll road authority that handles billing for certain roads when drivers don’t have an electronic toll pass. Because Heyman’s TxTag account wasn’t working, he received multiple pay-by-mail bills from CTRMA with different variations of his license plate.

The CTRMA told him not to pay the bills with the wrong license plate numbers, he said, because that would open up new accounts under his name. Heyman says he was told everything would be resolved. Instead, he is now getting collection notices with late fees — and the bills are ballooning.

“It ended up getting sent to collections, which ended up being $78 and change for what started out as $1.88 in tolls,” Heyman said. “I don’t want to hurt my credit for $1.88 in tolls.”

Heyman says he has spent the past seven months steering through bureaucracy. He spends around four hours a month on the phone trying to sort this out, he said. After getting nowhere, he turned to KXAN for help.

“When I have to spend three hours on something for $5, that’s not even minimum wage,” he said. “I would love for these letters to go away.”

Some of the invoices escalated to collections due to a “failure to properly credit fees,” CTRMA admitted. It is implementing “additional guidance” to staff to prevent similar mistakes.

‘I don’t want to see them win’

CTRMA says it noticed “an uptick” in similar complaints in February following TxTag’s system upgrade. As KXAN previously reported, that upgrade was plagued by technical problems.

It turns out, different agencies are transcribing license plates inconsistently when scanners have trouble reading certain characters, CTRMA officials say. The agency wants everyone to agree on a standard form for how “O’s” and “I’s” are recorded in order to reduce the chance of billing errors.

During the TxTag system upgrade, changes were made to “reduce confusion related to Texas plates,” according to the Texas Department of Transportation, which operates TxTag. One change is to read “I’s” as ones and “O’s” as zeros, according to CTRMA.

In response, the toll agency says it changed its system to default to “0” to ensure tolls would post correctly to TxTag accounts. CTRMA say they just found out in the last two weeks that TxTag also changed the way it reads “I’s” as well.

Heyman is confused and frustrated.

“Why not just get another plate?” asked KXAN investigator Matt Grant.

“That was suggested,” said Heyman. “But I said, ‘I don’t want to see them win.’

CTRMA says it is dismissing Heyman’s bills, and he now owes nothing. All variations of his license plate are being flagged to avoid future errors. Being told the news, Heyman says he’s relieved.

“This is fantastic,” he said. “A huge thank you to Matt and everyone at KXAN. You guys are the best.”

CTRMA says it is working with TxTag to understand all of the changes made during the transition and to ensure similar problems don’t happen to other drivers. It is unclear how many others are impacted by these license plate problems.

Do you have O,0,I,1 in your plate?

Since some scanners apparently have a difficult time differentiating between a one and the letter “I” and  zero and the letter “O,” the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles records license plates with both alpha and numeric characters, so both ways are covered, CTRMA said. That ensures a bill is sent to the correct address.

License plates are used to bill drivers if they don’t have a toll transponder or the one they have isn’t working, like in Heyman’s case.

So, what can you do?  

  • Make sure your toll transponder is working
  • Ask your tag provider how license plates are recorded if there is an O, 0, I or 1 in your license plate
  • Ask your tag provider to record your license plate with both alpha letters and numeric numbers to ensure that that variations of your license plate are covered
  • Contact the appropriate toll authority for toll bills received in error or for toll questions
  • Contact TxDMV with questions related to your registration or plates issued to your vehicle

CTRMA statement

“The Mobility Authority strives to provide excellent customer service. We understand that this situation has been time-consuming and frustrating for Mr. Heyman and other customers who found themselves in similar situations,” said CTRMA director of operations Tracie Brown. “We regret the extenuating inconvenience. We will continue discussions with our partners at TxTag to gain a comprehensive understanding of all of the changes implemented during their recent system transition to mitigate any adverse customer impacts for our mutual customer base.”

TxTag statement

“Mr. Heyman contacted the TxTag Customer Service Center on 1/26/2021 and 7/23/2021 regarding bills received from the Mobility Authority. The TxTag Customer Service Representative was under the impression that there was an issue with the tag and recommended canceling the tags on his account sending new tags to eliminate the issue. The old tags were marked as “INVALID” in the system and new tags were mailed. 

During the transition to the new TxTag system, there were changes made to reduce confusion related to Texas plates.  When a customer’s TxTag sticker is not correctly read on the toll road, an image of the license plate is taken and through image review there’s an attempt to link the license plate number to a TxTag account.  In this instance tolls could not be deducted from the customer’s TxTag account because (1) the TxTag sticker was not read and (2) the customer’s plate was listed with numbers 1 and 0 on the TxTag account. 

The TxTag Customer Service Center will contact the customer directly to provide further options.”

TxDMV statement

The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles says it’s “not aware” of toll readers having difficulty reading characters and has “not received any reports” from toll entities, or complaints from drivers, related to this issue.

“As part of your vehicle registration, TxDMV issues general-issue license plates and specialty license plates that utilize high-definition sheeting and security features embedded into the sheeting to maximize visibility.  General-issue plates contain seven-character alpha-numeric sequences, three alpha characters followed by four numbers, and specialty license plates may be personalized at the discretion of the owner for an additional fee.  General issue license plates do not use the characters with letters I or O. Personalized license plates allow customers to use letters I or O.  However, TxDMV is not aware of issues with general issue or personalized license plates.  Texans should contact the appropriate toll authority for toll bills received in error or for toll questions.”