AUSTIN (KXAN) - Vanessa Zabala used to take the toll road to work every day to cut down her commute from Hutto to Austin. That changed when she logged onto her TxTag account and saw she owed nearly $41,000. Her bill had skyrocketed after the collections agency charged a $25 fee for each individual toll.
Zabala said the Texas Department of Transportation, which oversees TxTag, offered her a discount and several payment plan options in November, including one that would require her to pay $78 every month for the next five years.
"They came up with these exorbitant amounts to tack on for administrative fees," Zabala said. "That’s a large amount to be paying for five years."
Now, there's a new law going into effect next month to cap administrative fees for delinquent toll users, similar to the fees Zabala was charged.
Before the cap on fees, KXAN’s investigation in October revealed a collections agency levied nearly $1 billion in fees alone for more than 2.2 million accounts that were sent to collections between January and August 2017.
The Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees TxDOT, voted Jan. 25 to adopt a new toll fee structure, which will cap administrative fees starting March 1 at $4 per invoice and $48 for a 12-month period.
TxDOT spokesperson Veronica Beyer said the state agency will also no longer administer violation, collection or court fees. Last year, TxDOT collected more than $32.4 million in violation, collection and court fees.
When the new measures go into effect next month, the current collections agency, Houston-based law firm Perdue Brandon Fielder Collins & Mott, will no longer be contracted to collect outstanding fees.
TxDOT contracts its TxTag customer service and billing operation with Conduent, who then subcontracts with Perdue for collection efforts.
A Conduent spokesperson referred KXAN to TxDOT after we asked why the company decided to drop the collections agency and if they will attempt to collect the hundreds of millions in collection fees that may still be outstanding come March 1. As of Friday, Feb. 9, TxDOT did not respond to questions regarding whether or not collection fees issued by Perdue would be transferred to Conduent or TxDOT. They also did not provide information about whether or not prior fees exceeding the $48 cap will be forgiven after March 1.
Before the legislation goes into effect, TxDOT said it stopped sending new delinquent toll accounts to the collections agency on Sept. 15, "to provide the highest level of customer service." Still, customers who were already in collections paid $8.9 million in violation and collection fees between September and December 2017.
And, Perdue is still trying to collect as much as it can from drivers who may not know their options.
"Our firm will no longer represent (TxDOT) toll roads after Feb. 28, 2018, and cannot continue to accept payments on your payment agreement after that date," according to an email Perdue sent a Central Texas resident on Jan. 31. "We can offer a substantial discount on your remaining collection fee balance, provided payment in full is received by Feb. 28."
State Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park, said he’s been in communications with TxDOT and Conduent and thinks there has been some progress, though more still needs to be done to make sure all of the toll operations back office systems are communicating effectively.
After KXAN asked why the collections agency is able to track down addresses for drivers who claim they never got their bill, Dale said he asked the state agency the same question. He said now Conduent has added an extra step in its process when it queries license plates for addresses to make sure fewer bills are being sent to the wrong person.
"That should result in more people getting their bills in a more timely manner, and I really think it's partly a result of you guys asking that question," said Dale, who two toll roads in his Central Texas district.
Even with legislative changes capping administrative fees, some customers claim their accounts shouldn’t have been referred to collections in the first place.
KXAN found that even when drivers update their information with the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, which shares information with TxDOT, their bills aren’t always going to the right place.
Beyer said if an individual receives an incorrect bill, it’s typically their fault for not updating their address or credit card information.
"It is absolutely the customer’s responsibility to update their contact information with us, just like they would a credit card merchant," Beyer said. "It’s important for you to remember that this would not be an issue if customers would pay their bills. Thanks for helping us remind customers that they have a responsibility in keeping their accounts updated and paying their bills on time."
Andrew Wheeler doesn’t understand why he keeps getting other people’s TxTag toll bills in his postal mailbox. Wheeler, who has been in a wheelchair for two years, said he hasn’t owned a car in 30 years and he’s the only person who has ever lived at his current address.
For years, he said he marked toll bills with a "return to sender" note, but they keep coming. When he called TxTag customer service to resolve the matter, Wheeler said they told him to contact the DMV and pay for a title history of the vehicles on the bills to prove they aren’t his.
"This is an ongoing problem that's not being solved. The names [and cars] are changing, but it's still the same thing," Wheeler said. "I've got to do something about it, or I'm just going to keep writing return to sender for the rest of my life or, you know, as long as I and the toll roads exist."
TxDOT has free access to records for every vehicle registered in the state through an interagency agreement with the DMV, including the title history they asked Wheeler to pay for.
TxDOT is required by law to use license plate numbers and corresponding DMV records for Pay by Mail bills to determine where to mail toll bills. They also have the option of using addresses provided by a customer or "derived through other reliable means."
Beyer said the TxTag system takes a picture of vehicle license plates as they drive through a toll. If the plates aren’t tied to a TxTag account, they are sent to an Image Review team member who keys in the license plate and runs it against the DMV data in order to retrieve the name and address associated with the license plate.
When KXAN cross-referenced the TxTag bills Wheeler received with certified DMV records, things didn’t match up.
Wheeler’s address was on a bill that had Robin Friar’s name on it. Additionally, the license plate listed on that bill was for a truck the Friars didn’t even own anymore. A woman in Kyle currently owns the truck and, based on DMV records and the dates of toll usage listed on the bill, she should be responsible for the bill.
TxDOT initially said Friar either didn’t update her DMV records or the DMV typed in the wrong address. But, after the DMV confirmed the truck’s license plate has never been associated with Wheeler or Friar, TxDOT said they were unable to determine why they sent the bill to Wheeler’s address because those records were no longer available. The only explanation TxDOT offered was that they searched an external system, which provided the same wrong address where the bills had been sent.
"This woman who's driving on the tolls -- she's getting a free ride," Robin’s son, Nathan Friar said. "She's not aware, so am I supposed to pay it? I don't want to pay it."
A Capitol source told KXAN about a one-page sheet with tips for TxTag customers, informing them of the best ways to keep their accounts up-to-date and avoid billing errors. The source said TxTag may have plans to distribute the sheet to every TxTag customer in an effort to beef up their outreach efforts.
The tips include never moving a TxTag sticker from an old vehicle to a new one, updating your mailing address when you move and filing a VTR-146 form with the DMV to ensure the title for your vehicle is transferred properly and that you’re not charged for a vehicle you don't own.
TxDOT said they’re not seeing discrepancies in their address system, but KXAN tracked down multiple instances where bills weren’t sent to the address the DMV has on file.
Jason Whitson received a toll bill for a motorcycle that he sold 15 years ago. When he called to ask about it, TxTag told him he also needed to pay for the motorcycle’s title history to prove it wasn’t his.
But, a DMV employee said TxTag should be able to see that the motorcycle transferred ownership in 2003. "It may be worth pointing this out to the toll authority as they should be able to pull the record and verify this information," the DMV employee emailed Whitson in November.
Whitson is among the 161 people whose concerns KXAN shared with TxDOT after our October investigation aired. Overall, TxDOT says the TxTag system operated correctly in 157 of the cases.
For the 157 accounts where TxDOT says they’re not at fault, 40 bills could not be delivered because customers didn’t notify TxTag of an address change, the state agency said. The remaining 117 customers received fees because they didn’t pay their bill.
'Whoever's doing the collecting seems to be able to find them real easy but the tolling agency couldn't.'
There were only four instances where TxDOT admits there were issues, including one Austin resident who says he was refunded $2.55 for double billing.
"The $2.55 is not my issue," the viewer told KXAN. "The real issue is whether there are others with the same problem I had but didn't bother to look at the detail billing. $2.55 can add up to a lot of money if many others are affected."
But, TxTag issued more than $1.4 million in refunds to more than 12,700 accounts last year. Over the last five years, the toll agency spent more than $7.8 million in refunds to customers, with the majority coming in 2015 when former TxTag contractor Xerox was fined for not meeting the terms of their contract regarding the handling of customer service and billing.
"The patchwork of systems that we have, first of all, confuses people and the way they get their bills confuses them and then the way they go about running up the penalties when quite often people for some reason don't get their bill until they go to collection," said Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood. "Whoever's doing the collecting seems to be able to find them real easy but the tolling agency couldn't."
With several lawmakers hearing from constituents frustrated with the TxTag system, House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, tasked the House Transportation Committee to study toll transparency and the Pay by Mail billing technology.
State Rep. Ina Minjarez, D-San Antonio, member of the committee, said the issues with TxTag have been ongoing. She filed the amendment to cap administrative fees for delinquent toll users.
"Don’t ever ignore the cries of the public. If you continuously ignore that, it causes problems in the long run and it causes people to just have an anti-toll sentiment," Minjarez said. "Had these problems been addressed, had people been listened to, I don’t think we would be here."
Despite the new measures taking place next month, drivers who have racked up thousands in fees are left wondering if they’ll still have to pay.
"I’m a little upset," Zabala said. "For them to [say], 'Oh, we realize charging 50 percent more in just administrative fees is too much,’ I appreciate them doing something about it and taking initiative, but it’s like, what happens to the people paying those dues or are still in the payment plans, collections, whatever the situation may be with $7,000 bills that, it’s just, unreachable, unattainable, wrong."