AUSTIN (KXAN) — As state lawmakers wrap up their work for the 88th regular legislative session, it appears efforts to address drivers’ continual complaints about tollway operations in Texas will meet the same fate as previous proposed reforms: not gaining much steam.
Texas legislators only have 140 days to wade through thousands of bills filed this year, and the issues that emerged as the main priorities in the Republican-led statehouse included things like property tax relief, school safety measures and transgender health care restrictions. With those topics taking up so much debate and time, reforming the state’s toll systems barely made a splash in the legislature despite it being one of KXAN’s biggest viewer complaints for years.
A few lawmakers did put forward a limited number of proposals — just eight bills that KXAN could identify — to change how the state’s tolling systems operate. However, those bills mostly remain stalled, as the legislative session winds down soon.
Proposed fixes on the table
Sen. Bob Hall, a Republican from Edgewood, introduced Senate Bill 316, which is the latest version of legislation he’s filed every session since taking office in 2015. The bill would create a uniform billing system for toll operators throughout the state and limit the fees they can charge if a driver does not pay on time.
“This is one of those things that I think is the proper role of state government,” Hall said, “looking out for the people of Texas and protecting them.”
He said his office constantly hears from constituents about issues with their toll bills and the added costs that can come with those.
“We’ve had just dozens and dozens of people come to us and say, ‘You know, I didn’t even know I had a toll bill,'” Hall said. “I mean, they’ll send the bill to the wrong address or to an old address. It’ll build late fees on top of late fees … and the next thing you know, for a $5 or $3 toll bill, they’ve got hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars and fines that are tacked on top of it.”
Drivers facing big toll bills could get some help if another state lawmaker, Rep. James Talarico, has his way.
“We have a package of bills to help provide some immediate relief to working Texans across our state, and one of them is to create a one-year pause in toll road fees,” Talarico, an Austin Democrat, said.
He filed House Bill 4231, which is only a page in length and calls for using some of the state’s record budget surplus to cover the cost of tolls for one year.
“Unfortunately, our state has refused to invest in public highways and roads like we used to, and now we’re putting it on the backs of Texans to pay for their own roads,” Talarico said. “During this time of global inflation, I think it’s the least we can do to provide a little bit of relief with these toll fees.”
Both bills filed by Talarico and Hall got referred to their respective chambers’ transportation committee, which would have to approve the proposal first before a full vote in either the Texas House of Representatives or Senate. However, neither piece of legislation has received a hearing yet. The legislative session will end May 29.
One proposal related to Texas toll operations, though, did clear a key committee vote on April 19. By a vote of 11-1, the members of the House transportation committee passed House Bill 3843, filed by Republican Rep. Terry Wilson of Marble Falls. This would require the Texas Department of Transportation to start working on a sweeping study comparing the operations of every tolling entity across the state. The report, according to the legislation, would specifically have to look at how they deal with error rates, customer complaints, processing speeds and billing practices. At this time, it remains unclear whether or when the full House will vote on the proposal.
The KXAN investigative team recently hand-delivered information packets to the 22 lawmakers who serve on their respective transportation committees. These contained details about the handful of toll-related bills introduced this session as well as summaries of the copious number of viewer complaints KXAN received in the past few years.
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What happened in the past?
In previous legislative sessions, several lawmakers spoke out more than others about billing and technology problems that persist with Texas tollway systems.
Tony Dale, the former Republican state representative from Cedar Park, talked with KXAN extensively throughout his legislative career about issues like security concerns with the TxTag contractor hired by the Texas Department of Transportation and the delays in billing statements sent to customers. While he could not comment for this story, he previously discussed the roadblocks that some efforts got to reform the state’s tolling systems.
During a 2018 investigation about a measure to cap toll fees for delinquent toll users, Dale told KXAN pushback from toll operators might show their unwillingness to want to reduce fines.
“Even when I talk to people that are part of the toll authority, they say they don’t really want to collect the fees. They just want to have people pay their toll and go on,” Dale said five years ago. “Well, this is their chance to live up to what they say. They can go to the same policy that the state has, or they can fight the attorney general or they can fight the legislature when we try and force the issue later.”
The law Dale referenced went into effect in March 2018 and capped TxTag administrative fees at $48 during a 12-month period.
Joe Pickett, the former Democratic representative from El Paso who served as chairman of the House transportation committee, also used to encourage Texans to contact their state lawmakers when they experienced complications with large toll bills.
Those two lawmakers are no longer at the State Capitol, but the leaders who do remain said they’ll keep pushing forward their proposed fixes despite any obstacles.
Hall echoed the sentiments once shared by Dale, saying the toll entities themselves have tripped up his past pushes to create statewide uniformity in toll collections. This session, though, he said he hoped things would turn out differently because the issue could possibly fly below the radar and end up passing.
“I’ve seen it with other bills: when you do it a couple of times and people come to understand that what the lobby is telling them is not true and that they’re actually serving the people of Texas, they tend to change their positions on things,” he said.
KXAN reached out to the Texas Department of Transportation to inquire about its thoughts on Hall’s bill and others under consideration this session. However, a spokesperson said the agency does not comment on pending legislation.
For Talarico, though, he said he believed enacting some toll road fixes, like his one-year toll fee moratorium, might be enough to bridge partisan divides at the Capitol since the issue has roiled both Republicans and Democrats for years.
“I’m hopeful this is not a red issue or a blue issue,” he said. “I hope this is an issue we can all support.”