AUSTIN, Texas (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.
No Explanation for Wrong Addresses
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.