Lawmakers, toll operators at odds on what new cap on fees means

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) – A measure capping toll fees for delinquent users goes into effect on Thursday, but state lawmakers and a local transportation agency still disagree about who is affected by the new law.

Regardless of how either interprets Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s opinion about the law, it’s clear that the issue will be discussed during the interim and next legislative session.

“People just want the fines to come down and be [fairer], and in fact, there were cheers on the House floor,” when the measure passed, said State Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park.

Paxton’s opinion released on Monday says the portion of Senate Bill 312 which caps toll fees at $48 during a 12-month period will apply to all entities that contract with the Texas Department of Transportation under a specific statue of the Texas Transportation Code.

“It’s a statute that ensures that those who pay on time and legally and properly use the toll facilities, that they’re protected with the amount that they pay to use it and they aren’t penalized by people who toll lift,” said Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, referring to those who drive through tolls but never pay their bills.

He said, “Those that want to Pay By Mail, they can, but they’re gonna have to pay within 30 days.”

Dale believes Paxton’s opinion means every toll entity in Texas will have to comply with the cap on fees. But CTRMA is confident their toll road operations fall under a different portion of the law, which is not affected by the new measure that goes into effect on Thursday.

“I’m not surprised that they would say that. You know, it seems like every time they get an opportunity to do something that would be more favorable to people that use the roads, it’s a pretty difficult road to go down for them,” Dale said. “It’s disappointing and I can assure you that during this next legislative session that if there’s anything that’s unclear to them about what the intent of the legislature is, I intend to make it clear.”

Heiligenstein said although the new law doesn’t apply to them and they don’t currently have a cap on how much in violation fees their customers can accrue, he does think there needs to be some sort of cap in place.

“I would prefer that we have some kind of cap that is painful enough that people come in and pay for those 50 times that they used it and maybe that cap would be an incentive,” he said. “But we’ve also gotta have enough on the other hand to where their registration is held or some kind of process.”

Still, Dale said the 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. “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.”

Dale’s district has toll roads operated by both TxDOT, such as the 45 Toll, and CTRMA, such as 183A. He says regardless of who operates a toll, they should all have to comply with the same laws when it comes to how much in fines they can charge drivers.

If the latest fee provisions were imposed on all toll roads, Heiligenstein said they’d have to look at ways to modify those requirements during the next legislative session.

“The credit markets and those people that invest in these kinds of facilities would look at every incremental issue that damages the ability to repay bonds,” he said. “I think that it is a significant factor and it’s one that should be taken into consideration. I don’t know that it would be a defining one, but it is certainly contributing to making it harder for us to fund projects in the future.”

With two differing interpretations, State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, who asked for the opinion on Sept. 11, 2017, said he plans to ask for a second opinion clarifying who all the fee provisions would apply to. He said he’s already asked TxDOT to clearly outline which existing and future toll roads in the statewide transportation plan fall under the statute in Paxton’s opinion.

“The reason this last attorney general’s opinion has had some consternation with those authorities is, they’re all charging a lot more money than what this bill that goes into effect tomorrow [requires] so they’re worried,” Pickett said. “I can’t tell you what the magic number should be.”

The confusion about who all this toll law applies to highlights the complicated toll systems in Texas.

Pickett said the state’s “fractured” toll system is unlike other states that operate under one entity. Because of that, he said drivers, especially in Central Texas, are confused when it comes to who is billing them for their toll usage. He said it’ll take legislation as well as cooperation from TxDOT in order to fix issues with the system.

“If we’re going to continue to have tolls, it needs to be clarified because people are getting a bill and they pay it and then they get a bill that’s got a different entity on it and they think, ‘well I already paid that,’” Pickett said. “What they didn’t realize is they went from one toll road onto another toll road that’s operated by another entity.”

Pickett said it may have been wishful thinking by some lawmakers who thought the law applied to every toll road.

Ultimately, Dale said if some toll authorities don’t follow the new fee provisions when they go into effect Thursday, he’ll make sure they do in the future when the tackle the issue in the next legislative session.

“We’re going to have a number of toll road-related bills that have to do with fairness toward customers,” Dale said.

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