Motorists who refuse to pay tolls would be unable to renew yearly car registrations in North Texas’ four largest counties, under a state law change the North Texas Tollway Authority is seeking in the current legislative session.
“What were talking about is tightening the system so people know there are consequences,” said tollway chairman Kenneth Barr, former Fort Worth mayor. Barr stressed that the tougher punishments would only be sought for car owners who had racked up 100 or more unpaid tolls, and failed to respond to at least 16 written notices.
Although roughly 92 percent of drivers on the region’s tollways pay their bills on time, scofflaws are costing the tollway authority big bucks, he said. The Plano-based agency lost $12.5 million last year in unpaid tolls – many from motorists who are still using the roads to this day.
“What we’re talking about here are people who are gaming the system,” he said.
Tollway officials are still seeking a lawmaker who might be willing to carry such a bill. March 8 is the state’s deadline for filing bills, other than local bills and those considered emergencies. The bill would affect car owners in Tarrant, Denton, Dallas and Collin counties, which are the four counties that make up the tollway authority’s territory. Johnson County will be added to the mix after the planned opening of Chisholm Trail Parkway, a 28-mile toll road from downtown Fort Worth to Cleburne, in 2014.
It’s the agency’s latest attempt to close an enforcement weakness that became glaringly apparent after the Dallas Fort Worth area’s toll roads were converted to an all-electronic system in 2010. Officials quickly found out that, without manned toll booths as a deterrent, there really isn’t much they can do to stop people from skipping out on their tolls.
The tollway authority did have some success the past six months publicizing the names of car owners with 100 or more unpaid tolls on its website. Since that list went live in July, about $1.86 million has been recovered, said communications director Kimberly Jackson. But to capture the rest of the missing money, the agency needs enforcement with more teeth, said executive director Gerry Carrigan. The idea, he said, is to protect the overwhelming majority of motorists who drive the roads legally – many of whom pay automatically through a TollTag on their windshield. “We don’t want to be punitive,” he said. “We want to keep our good customers good, and provide some punishment for the small percentage who don’t pay.”
In addition to blocking car registrations, the tollway authority also is seeking the state’s permission to create a legal process known as an administrative hearing. Officials stressed that it would not be a court, but it would resemble a courtroom proceeding in the sense that those with unpaid tolls would be given a chance to explain their tardiness and make payment or settlement arrangements. The administrative hearing would occur before the tollway authority attempted to block car registrations.
he tollway authority also is seeking power to “ban” habitual toll violators from the 850-plus miles of tollways in the Metroplex. Car owners who were banned from the roads but continued to use them would be considered trespassing, making them subject to arrest.
At least one other tolling agency in Texas, the Harris County Toll Road Authority, already has the ability to block car registrations in the Houston area.
Officials in Tarrant, Denton, Dallas and Collin counties have been unable to mutually agree on a system for blocking vehicle registrations at the local level, Barr said.
However, the commissioners courts in all four counties have passed resolutions endorsing the tollway authority’s proposed legislation, Carrigan said.
Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796 Twitter: @gdickson