Toll bureaucracies irked at cap on toll fines

Lawmakers clash with toll bureaucracies over cap on toll fines
By Terri Hall
March 11, 2018

It’s a great day for Texas drivers as a new law takes effect capping the toll fines and fees on some Texas tollways to $48 a year. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion just as the law took effect that said the new law applies to all toll entities, but only under a limited section of the Transportation Code — Chapter 228. This has put toll agencies, like the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), on a collision course with lawmakers over the interpretation of how broadly the law impacts certain toll projects.

Paxton did assert the new law applies to “an entity operating a toll lane pursuant to Section 228.007(b), Transportation Code,” which brings in every type of toll entity. However, most toll projects are not governed by agreements with TxDOT under Chapter 228, so toll bureaucracies argue the new law, passed as part of SB 312 last year, only applies to a handful of toll projects.

Toll roads subject to new cap on fees (according to TxDOT):
• SH 130 (Travis, Guadalupe, Caldwell Counties)
• Loop 1 - (Travis County) excludes MoPac managed lanes operated by Central Texas RMA
• SH 45N (Travis County)
• SH 45SE (Travis County)
• SH 99 (Grand Parkway, Harris County) excludes portions operated by Ft. Bend County Toll Road Authority
• SH 249 - excludes portions managed by Montgomery County
• SH 288 managed toll lanes (Harris County)

However, State Representative Tony Dale takes issue with TxDOT’s interpretation. He told KXAN news in Austin: "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.”

In contrast to previous state law, drivers could see thousands of dollars in toll fines and fees tacked onto otherwise minor toll bills, having a bill go from $2.30 and balloon into a $3,000 bill in a matter of weeks. One of the fiery debates in the Texas House surrounded whether or not to keep the criminal penalties as part of failing to pay a toll bill. The House overwhelmingly voted to reject the criminalization of toll penalties by a vote of 136-3. However, the conference committee inserted the criminal penalties back into the bill that eventually passed, leaving many Texans angry over the ability of toll entities to block their vehicle registration, put out warrants for their arrest, and potentially put them in jail for simply failing to pay a toll bill.

Lt. Governor Dan Patrick has called for an interim study on toll penalties, anticipating the controversy, and lawmakers like Dale promise to clarify next session (which begins in January 2019) that this $48 cap on toll fines applies to all toll entities, regardless of the toll project entity operating the project or what jurisdiction a driver traverses.

Former Gov. Rick Perry made toll roads part of his legacy and pushed mass implementation of toll roads across Texas, including privatized toll roads, creating a massive new bureaucracy and endowing them with incredible powers to criminalize drivers for failure to pay tolls, levy unscrupulous fines and fees, and impose punitive runaway toll taxes that rise and fall with the level of congestion (exceeding $1/mile to drive in peak hours).

Governor Greg Abbott decidedly departed from Perry’s policies and tapped the brakes on toll roads, most notably killing 15 new toll projects last fall. The majority of lawmakers have feverishly responded to constituents’ complaints about the costs to drive toll roads, including the egregious toll penalties. Expect the Texas legislature to continue to tamp down toll roads and toll costs to drivers when they come into session next year. As they say, this ain’t over.