Typically, the North Texas Tollway Authority sends a collection firm after only the top 100 out-of-state violators, finding it not cost-effective to pursue lessor scofflaws.
But soon that may not be the case for many motorists from one neighboring state – Louisiana.
The tollway authority board on Wednesday approved an agreement with Louisiana’s state transportation department to share license plate information. The agreement, which involved no exchange of funds, means that it will be easier for the Plano-based tollway authority to track down and mail bills to registered owners of vehicles with Louisiana license plates.
“We get a lot of traffic from Oklahoma and Louisiana on the tollways,” said tollway authority chairman Kenneth Barr of Fort Worth. “Increasingly we’re going after out-of-state users to see that we get paid.”
The tollway authority was at the forefront of electronic toll collection, which has made the system more efficient and lured new drivers. Frequent customers use TollTags to pay their tolls electronically, without stopping. But at the same time, since the last toll booths were closed in 2010 there has been no place for occasional or infrequent users to pay with coins. And states don't readily share vehicle registration information.
“The whole industry is trying to figure out how to address this interoperability,” Barr said.
Tollway officials are sensitive to complaints from North Texans who pay to use the region’s tollways daily, and don’t want out-of-staters to travel on the same pavement for free. They say that for several years they’ve employed the services of collection firm Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson to track down the most egregious toll violators from out of state. The collection agency typically has gone after the top 100 violators - including many drivers from Oklahoma and a smaller number from Louisiana and many other states.
Tollway authority spokeswoman Susan Slupecki downplayed the potential for the agency to increase its revenue by going after more Louisianans, simply because the agency now has a deal with its neighboring state. “We’re still getting the same information, but we’re just not going to be paying our third party vendor for it,” she said. But she did say that, later this year the tollway authority plans to upgrade its software, which will automate the process of gathering out-of-state license plates. That will allow the agency to go after a larger number of out-of-state vehicle owners who use the tollways.
The ability to collect tolls from out-of-state plates - or even in-state plates that are hard to read - is a growing problem nationwide, as more agencies switch to electronic toll collection. Overall, the tollway authority misses out on several million dollars per year in unpaid tolls – although most of the scofflaws are actually Texans.
Most vehicles on North Texas toll roads are equipped with TollTags, which are electronic transponders that make it possible to pay tolls automatically, using radio signals that tap into a user’s account, which is typically backed by a credit card. For Texans who don’t have a TollTag, an extensive camera system captures photographs of license plates, and sends the registered owner a bill.For in-state drivers, that’s an automated process. But for out-of-state drivers, a human has to sort through the license plate numbers manually, and send them to the collection agency.
Typically, the tollway authority waits until a vehicle has accumulated five toll charges before sending the registered owner a bill.
The agency is still discussing a license plate arrangement with Oklahoma, the source of nearly a fourth of all out-of-state plates on the North Texas tollway system, officials said.
The Texas Department of Transportation, which operates Austin-area toll roads, also uses a third-party vendor, Law Enforcement Systems, Inc., to obtain vehicle owner information, spokeswoman Karen Amacker said.
Out-of-state plates account for about 1.4 percent of total transactions at the state transportation department, and about 1.7 percent of all transactions on the North Texas Tollway Authority system, officials said.
Oklahomans are the most common out-of-state motorists seen on the North Texas tollway system. The top five:
- Oklahoma, 22.5 percent
- California, 11.1 percent
- Louisiana, 8.5 percent
- Arkansas, 7.6 percent
- Florida, 5.5 percent
- All other states, territories and nations, 44.8 percent.
Source: North Texas Tollway Authority