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) — Almost immediately after buying her car, Bobbie Wilson ordered a TxTag sticker to automatically deduct money from her account when she travels through tolls.
She thought it would make her commutes easier and save her money, since those with one pay less than if bills are sent by mail.
“It arrived in the mail, on time, and I stuck it to my car,” she said. “So, so happy that I had one.”
Not long after installing her TxTag sticker in 2019, she received several toll bills — each for $0.86 — from the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, or CTRMA. When she called TxTag to ask why that wasn’t paid, she said TxTag told her it was a mistake — her transponder was never linked to her car.
“They said, when I spoke to them over the phone, that they would take care of that because it was their error,” Wilson recalled.
It wasn’t taken care of.
Instead, she received a letter in February 2022 from Southwest Credit Systems, a debt collection agency, saying she owed $212.98 for “outstanding debt owed to CTRMA for unpaid tolls and fees” stemming from the issue with her TxTag sticker.
That amount was lowered to $94.70, according to a recent CTRMA online statement Wilson showed KXAN. It’s unclear why the amount appears to have been reduced from what was asked last year. All of this, she said, came as a “complete shock.” However, even at a “reduced” rate, she said she is refusing to pay on principle.
“I don’t think it’s right. It’s not something that I did wrong,” she said, when asked why she won’t write a check to put all of this in her rearview mirror. “Since they (TxTag) admitted that it was their error in the first place of why it wasn’t attached properly in the system, they (TxTag) should be dealing with it and not me.”
KXAN asked the Texas Department of Transportation, which runs TxTag, and CTRMA about Wilson’s toll bills that ballooned from a few dollars to more than $200. TxDOT said it is looking into it. CTRMA said it doesn’t discuss customer accounts for privacy reasons. However, the agency said it is “confident” that in Wilson’s case, its “processes worked as intended.”
“If TxTag admitted to an error, the TxTag owner may consider requesting a credit from TxTag in the amount of the difference between a tag transaction and CTRMA’s Pay By Mail transactions and any associated fees,” the agency said. “CTRMA’s Pay By Mail bills must be paid to avoid late fees.”
Why are TxTag customers getting Pay By Mail Bills?
When TxTags are working properly, CTRMA receives money from the tag account and no bill is sent to the customer. CTRMA sends out pay-by-mail bills when drivers don’t have an electronic tag, their sticker isn’t working or there isn’t enough money in the account, officials said. For TxTag customers, the agency attempts to bill TxTag three times in a week. If each attempt fails, it mails a bill to the customer, the agency told KXAN.
CTRMA turns to debt collection agency Southwest Credit Systems to collect money from invoices “that have remained unpaid after one year,” according to a frequently asked questions section of its website that addresses many TxTag-related questions.
Last year, KXAN was first to report CTRMA had stopped billing TxTag customers for six months — the second time in less than a year — because it didn’t “have confidence in the data” it was getting from TxDOT.
The agency resumed billing after six months after TxTag “assured” it that “any declined transactions from their system are appropriate.”
A ‘national challenge’
“I think, if you look inside the state of Texas, TxTag is kind of unique,” said Nick Wood, an associate research engineer with Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute.
Wood has done roadway research for agencies across the country, including TxDOT — an entity with tollway stickers that should work on every road in the state, including those managed by CTRMA, where Wilson was driving.
In his research, he said no other toll entity in Texas has had as many problems as TxTag — but nationally, other states have had similar issues.
“Interoperability is a national challenge,” said Wood, referring to how different toll authorities communicate with each other. “And the issue behind it is not so much the technology, it’s the business rules” between different tolling authorities across the state.
That is little comfort to customers like Wood. She said she spent hours on the phone with TxTag but got no resolution.
“They need to get their acts together,” she said.
Regional Mobility Authorities
Adding to many drivers’ confusion over billing is the patchwork of tolling authorities that exist across the state.
In 2001, the Texas legislature created Regional Mobility Authorities, or RMAs. There are now 10 in Texas. RMAs operate as independent, self-funded local government agencies authorized to finance, develop and implement transportation projects, such as freight, aerial tramways and toll roads.
Adding to the complexity, Texas also has a regional toll authority and several county toll authorities, according to a list prepared for the Legislature, and maps and educational materials prepared by TxDOT.
Wood said all these toll entities in the state operate under an “interoperability agreement” — the same thing he previously said has become a “national challenge.”
“Each of these agencies have different business rules and sometimes have different vendors,” Wood said. “And the vendors don’t like to talk to each other, and it’s a common problem. They have issues in … a number of different states because each entity has a different way of doing things and it’s kind of hard to get them to talk to each other.”
Texas, he said, is “about middle of the road” when it comes to tolling problems nationally.
“Not the worst,” he said.
Despite any differences, he said Texas’ RMAs all have one thing in common: money.
“The key is they need funding and financing to do their projects,” Wood said. “And one way to do this is by tolling.”
Some tolling authorities, like the North Texas Tollway Authority, or NTTA, have their own tag system, TollTag. Others, like CTRMA, simply operate, maintain and bill for the use of their toll roads.
“It’s really a challenge if you’re driving in Central Texas,” to know if you’re driving on a road owned by TxDOT or CTRMA, Wood said.
“You can’t really figure that out that easily,” he said, “unless you look closely at road signs for the toll logos.”
But while you may not know at the moment who owns the road you’re driving on, if you have a toll sticker, in theory, paying should be a seamless, automatic process.
For hundreds of KXAN viewers with a TxTag account, that hasn’t been the case.
‘Number one driver’ of inquiries
CTRMA showed KXAN how its system operates, confirming it can only access very basic TxTag information — including if an account is valid. CTRMA’s top officials have publicly likened the agency to a store and cashier and compared toll tags to credit cards used to make a purchase. When a card is declined, the store likely doesn’t know exactly why; it just knows another form of payment is needed.
In April, the agency held a separate information session for reporters citing “customer misconceptions as to our role in the tolling process, integration with other toll operators, operational coordination with tag providers, and our customer service and resolution efforts.”
“We do not own nor operate TxTag or any other electronic tag, nor do we have access to TxTag customers’ detailed account information,” CTRMA told KXAN in a statement. “We understand this may lead to confusion amongst our shared customers. It is the number one driver of the inquiries we receive, and the primary focus of our communication efforts.”
CTRMA said electronic tag users should contact their tag account providers if they believe they received a bill from CTRMA in error or have questions about what led to the bill.
“We stand ready to assist our customers in navigating their toll bills and the tolling landscape in Central Texas,” the agency said.
In its statement, CTRMA added a “reminder” that it — “and all other toll roads in Texas” — currently accept toll tags from TxDOT’s TxTag, NTTA’s TollTag, HCTRA’s EZ TAG, Kansas Turnpike Authority’s K-Tag, Oklahoma Turnpike Authority’s Pikepass and BancPass/PlusPass.
As part of a KXAN investigation into tollway solutions, the North Texas Tollway Authority told KXAN that even though its TollTag can be used across the state, it recommends people still get a tag from the tolling agency in their home area.
Still, at a Board of Directors meeting on Sept. 28, 2022, CTRMA Executive Director James Bass implied many of his Austin-based employees would rather use toll tags from Dallas than deal with TxTag.
“In your spare time, if you’re interested, you might go through our parking garage here and see how many NTTA TollTags you see versus TxTag,” Bass said. “I think you’ll see more NTTA TollTags.”
“I’ll just leave it at that,” he added.