AUSTIN (KXAN) — More than a month after KXAN launched a viewer-driven investigation into TxTag, the state-run toll operation owned and operated by the Texas Department of Transportation with a history of persistent issues, new concerns are being raised over its technology standards. KXAN discovered some of TxDOT’s toll maps are five years out-of-date and a mobile payment app that was in the works in 2018 was quietly abandoned.

‘It’s showing it’s under construction’

Take a drive down U.S. Highway 183 South, also known as the Bergstrom Expressway, and you’ll see it’s very much in use. But, you’d never know that by looking at TxDOT’s website.

The Bergstrom Expressway toll plaza, owned by CTRMA (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

“It’s showing it’s under construction,” said Nick Wood, an associate research engineer with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, as he pointed to a road map of the Austin area on TxDOT’s website.

This particular eight-mile stretch of highway in east Austin is operated by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. Costing nearly $1 billion, it’s touted as a key north-south alternative to Interstate 35. Here, tolls are collected by CTRMA — one of a handful of regional agencies across the state authorized to develop toll roads.

If you were planning a trip and using one one of TxDOT’s road maps of Austin as a reference, you wouldn’t know who collects tolls along this stretch of road, let alone that it’s been in use for more than two years. A dark orange dotted line signifies on the map that it hasn’t been built yet.

A screen grab of an outdated TxDOT road map of Austin showing the Bergstrom Expressway still under construction. MoPac Expressway and State Highway 130 are both shown in green, even though they are different types of toll roads. (TxDOT Map)
A screen grab of an outdated TxDOT road map of Austin showing the Bergstrom Expressway still under construction. MoPac Expressway and State Highway 130 are both shown in green, even though they are different types of toll roads. (Courtesy: TxDOT)

Wood has done transit studies for both the Federal Highway Administration and TxDOT and is troubled to see that some of Texas’ public road maps haven’t been updated, according to its own website, since July 7, 2018.

He told KXAN about his discovery, hoping it will help TxDOT improve.

“It’s not a priority,” said Wood, when asked why he thinks the maps are five years out-of-date.

KXAN brought the outdated maps to TxDOT’s attention on June 12.

“TxDOT is currently working to update information located on those pages,” TxDOT spokesman Adam Hammons said.

Screengrab of outdated TxDOT Austin road map, last updated in July 7, 2018 (Courtesy: TxDOT)

Hammons did not say why the maps were outdated and why it took five years, and KXAN pointing it out, to update them. Ten days after KXAN first alerted TxDOT, the maps were still outdated.

“TxDOT is working to provide the latest information for motorists on the managed lanes page,” Hammons said in a follow-up email. “More information on toll roads and managed lanes can be found here and here*.”

He noted with an asterisk that the map he sent us has a 2022 date in the corner, “but it was updated in March 2023 (noted in the footer) based on 2022 data.”

‘Unless you’re an engineer like me, it’s kind of hard to decipher’

Nick Wood at his Austin office of Texas A&M Transportation Institute (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

On top of being outdated, some of the state’s maps are just plain confusing, Wood said. On a PDF road map of metro Austin, Wood pointed out the color-coding system doesn’t make clear if a road is owned and operated by TxTag or CTRMA. It also doesn’t specify which roads are toll roads and which are managed lanes. On toll roads, all free-flowing lanes are tolled, whereas managed lanes only have select lanes in each direction that are tolled, Wood explained.

TxDOT’s “managed lane” maps for the metro areas of Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, El Paso, Houston and San Antonio all show they were last updated in July 2018.

These particular maps are supposed to help motorists understand and locate “managed lane facilities.”

“MoPac Express, that is a tolled lane, one in each direction,” said Wood pointing to MoPac, which is color coded in green on TxDOT’s map. “And, SH 130 — that is all lanes that are tolled — and they’re both on the map the same color.”

Wood said TxDOT should “regularly update” its website and use digital, interactive maps that are user-friendly.

Nick Wood looks at an outdated TxDOT road map of Austin (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

“Unless you’re an engineer like me,” he added, “it’s kind of hard to decipher.”

‘No plans’ to develop mobile app

Technology troubles have been a source of TxTag customer frustration for years. Since 2020, 25% of all TxTag complaints sent to KXAN related to technical problems — things like paying bills, and accessing account information. KXAN found similar complaints of computer and system errors made directly to TxDOT since 2020 about TxTag, which is meant to make paying for tolls across the state easier.

One frustrated driver complained that a TxTag manager said in response to incorrect charges: “the technology is not perfect.”

“If you want people to pay their toll bills, you have to make it easy, intuitive,” Wood said. “Lessen the barriers for people to access that technology.”

Mobile payment apps are one way to make paying bills easier and is considered to be among the “best practices,” according to the International Bridge, Turnpike and Tunnel Association, the worldwide association for toll owners and operators.

“We have seen that agencies that do the best job at collecting tolls have distinguished themselves through … creating payment channels that create new ways for motorists to pay their tolls including retail location networks and mobile payment apps,” an IBTTA representative told KXAN.

The North Texas Tollway Authority and the Harris County Toll Road Authority each have an app, and TxTag tried to get one off the ground, too. In 2018, a mobile app was “in the works” for TxTag. The CEO of the Kansas City-based company, PayIt, announced a partnership at the time with TxDOT to build an “innovative” mobile payment app.

“Mobile is where citizens are and it is important to the [Texas] Department of Transportation to make resources available in the most modern, efficient way,” the CEO and founder of PayIt, John Thomson, said in a 2018 news release. “We are excited to partner with them.”

Screengrab of PayIt news release from 2018 (Courtesy: PRWeb)

In November 2019, the company issued another news release and said the app, named “PayItTolls,” was available for download, touting: “Drivers can now monitor their balances, prepare for trips, and save payment methods for quick one-time payments on the go by using the app — avoiding in-office visits and sending paper checks!”

The app is no longer available. So, what happened?

TxDOT said it awarded PayIt a no-cost contract in 2018, meaning no money was paid to develop an app.

“PayIt submitted a proposal in response to a solicitation that TxDOT posted for mobile applications supporting TxTag customers,” Hammons said in a statement. “PayIt proposed to utilize an App already developed that helps streamline doing business with federal, state and local government through its digital government and payment platform. TxDOT originally awarded PayIt in 2018 for a no-cost contract which means that TxDOT did not pay for any services. The PayIt app was placed on hold as TxTag was working to address back-office system issues.”

The app was “placed on hold” in November of 2020, he said, adding the state’s contract with PayIt expired on March 12, 2022 “and was not renewed.”

“There are no plans to develop an app at this time,” said Hammons.

KXAN sent two emails seeking comment to PayIt but did not hear back.

Wood said if TxDOT reinvested in its technology, it would go a long way to drive down complaints.

“Try to understand how people are using technology. Try to meet them where they’re at,” he said. “Because they are a government agency and, at the end of the day, they’re responsible to the people.”

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.