A Texas Department of Transportation announcement last week that it is forgiving more than $1.3 billion in unpaid toll road fees and fines charges came as a welcome surprise to many Texas residents. However, few who live in Cedar Park and Leander will get much relief.
The TxDOT forgiveness announcement only applies to roads operated directly by the state agency. Toll roads operated by other entities, including 183-A, are not covered by the TxDOT announcement.
Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which operates 183-A through Cedar Park and Leander and 290 Toll, which operates in East Austin through Manor, has not announced any forgiveness plan for the tens of millions of dollars reportedly owed to the agency.
CTRMA is also exempt from a new state law capping late fees and penalties for toll road users.
That law, which went into effect March 1, caps administrative fees at $6 per invoice with an annual cap of $48 per customer per year. Prior to the cap, some drivers were hit with tens of thousands of dollars in late fees and penalties.
TxDOT operated toll roads are subject to the new law, which means drivers who utilize Texas 45 North, which runs from the Lakeline Mall area east to the intersection with the Texas 130 toll road, and the toll portion of MoPac north of Parmer Lane, and Texas 130 itself, will see begin seeing lower fees.
Late fees and penalties, which add up quickly if a driver without a toll tag attempts to commute around the Austin area and don’t get their mail and respond in time, only add to what many claim are already too-high costs for driving area roads.
Brian Williams, an auto parts manager who lives in the Jollyville area, says that he refuses to use the toll roads at all.
“We have to pay a tax on gas which is supposed to go for the upkeep of our highways and then we’re forced to pay tolls on top of that,” said Williams. “It’s like we’re being taxed more than once.”
Worse, many TxTAG account holders say they’ve also been hit with additional fees even though they have a TxTAG prepaid account. This is one of the contributing factor to the billions of dollars in fees and fines owed.
Another contributing factor is that there is no single billing entity for all of the toll road operators. The Austin area has two different toll authorities and each has a separate billing system and different policies. Drivers who spend time in Dallas or Houston may end up receiving multiple statements, which some say is confusing and frustrating.
“The thing that is frustrating to me is that you can have five or six accounts, but they are all for the same vehicles and some on the same dates,” said area resident Sharon Ingram.
State Rep. Tony Dale has been working in recent years to reduce the burden on drivers related to the 183-A toll road, even proposing a bill that would have stopped toll collections on the CTRMA-operated roadway until toll-free frontage roads were built allowing drivers to bypass the toll lanes.
"The drivers in the area are saying they are paying too much for it, and they want free access roads, and they want their bills to be accurate,” Dale said last year when discussing his bill.
183-A was built without frontage roads on the most expensive portion of the roadway, from Lakeline to Whitestone Boulevard in Cedar Park. This 4-mile stretch of roadway is among the most expensive in the state, costing TxTAG prepaid account holders $2.67 for the short trip. Drivers without a prepaid account are billed through the mail at a higher rate, with an additional service fee added, and pay $4.56 — a 70 percent increase and a cost of more than a dollar a mile.
Dale said he’s long battled against the toll roads as well as CTRMA’s policies, and also said he isn’t surprised CTRMA hasn’t rolled back the penalties like TxDOT.
“They don’t even waive fees for disabled vets and Purple Heart recipients,” said Dale. “TxTAG does and CTRMA has been struggling to implement a plan to do so for a long time.”
Dale also noted that there has been a bipartisan plan in conjunction with the city of Cedar Park, TxDOT and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization to allow the area’s roads to become eligible for state funding, which could help reduce or even eliminate tolls. But, Dale said CTRMA has stood in the way of that effort.
“(I’m) continuously frustrated when the legislature says it doesn't want more toll roads, and we know our constituency isn’t happy about them, but they continue to be built and operated,” said Dale.
Volente resident Dick Schlenk, a retired carpenter, agrees.
“Aside from taxes, our roads should be free to drive on,” Schlenk said.
Even though TxDOT is forgiving more than a billion dollars in fees and penalties, the agency said it is not waiving the actual amount of the tolls drivers owe, and will not be refunding overpaid fees or penalties. TxDOT said $147 million in unpaid tolls are still owed by nearly 2.2 million drivers.