This story has been updated to include the latest developments with Senate Bill 198.
AUSTIN (KXAN) — Lawmakers voted May 21 to approve a bill aimed at alleviating frustrations toll road drivers have when it comes to billing and payment practices statewide, specifically when it comes to electronic toll tags, including TxTag stickers.
“I am proud we finally passed (Senate Bill) 198 today, which addresses many of the common frustrations and concerns that Texans have related to toll road billing and payment practices, by providing more uniformity and predictability for consumers across the state,” Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, said in a Facebook post. “I frequently hear from constituents about the issues they have with toll bills, and I believe this bill will help all Texans.”
The bill is now on its way to Gov. Greg Abbott’s office for a signature of final approval. If signed into law, it will prohibit toll entities from sending an invoice to the owner of a vehicle without first checking to see whether there’s an active electronic toll account, such as a TxTag, tied to that vehicle. And, if a toll entity discovers a customer’s transponder didn’t work correctly more than 10 times in a 30-day period, the entity will be required to send that customer a notice.
“This could cut down the unintentional administrative and late penalties and fees,” House Committee on Transportation Chairman Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, said last month during a committee meeting. Canales sponsored the bill, which is authored by Schwertner and Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham.
Ultimately, the bill will mean toll entities can’t penalize TxTag users, or drivers who use other types of electronic toll tags, if those systems malfunction or misread a customer’s tag. There’s currently more than 2.4 million active TxTag accounts.
“With reports indicating more than a dozen tolling entities in Texas, using these toll roads can also potentially create a confusing maze of toll charges and billing practices,” Sen. Schwertner wrote in an analysis of Senate Bill 198.
His analysis continued, “Concerns have been raised regarding the significant differences between how these entities toll and bill users, causing Texans to incur unexpected tolls and fees, misplace related mailings, and sometimes be surprised by unintentionally unpaid bills.”
Lawmakers have already taken steps to alleviate some issues regarding unexpected fees.
A 2017 KXAN investigation revealed the Texas Department of Transportation, which oversees TxTag, sent 2.2 million debtor accounts to collections that year. Lawmakers eventually passed a law capping late fees at $48 annually. That law went into effect last spring and, as a result, the state agency waived $1.3 billion in late fees for TxDOT-operated toll roads, all of which were affected by the new cap.
This new bill could also alter the appearance of some invoices, since it will require them to clearly state that it’s a bill and that the person receiving the bill is expected to pay the toll fees.
Supporters say “the bill would add certain requirements both for toll project entities and for customers to ensure that the billing process was more uniform, predictable and fair across the state.”
One tolling agency, the North Texas Tollway Authority, spoke before lawmakers last month in favor of the bill.
“This is starting to codify some of the best practices that the tolling agencies use to be able to address customer needs and make sure that we’re billing in exactly the right way depending on whether or not they have a transponder or it’s a pay by mail customer,” Arturo Ballesteros, director of government affairs at NTTA, said during a House Committee on Transportation meeting on April 24.
If Abbott signs the bill, toll entities will have more than a year to prepare for the changes, as the bill won’t go into effect until Sept. 1, 2020. The bill will only apply to tolls incurred after that date.
TxDOT previously told KXAN it does not comment on pending legislation.