June 20, 2012

North Texas Tollway Authority prepares most-wanted list

The agency plans to make public the names of thousands of scofflaws.

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PLANO -- Think of it as a most-wanted list for toll violators.

The names of roughly 26,000 vehicle owners who haven't paid their tolls will soon be published on the North Texas Tollway Authority's website in an attempt to get the scofflaws to settle their accounts. The list will highlight the top 100 violators, followed by a database that includes anyone with more than 100 past-due tolls. The precise total would vary daily, an official said.

Officials at the agency also pledged to begin filing lawsuits against the worst violators, many of whom have ignored past-due notices and collection attempts for months or even years.

"The focus here is on the repeat toll violators. We are drawing a line," legal counsel Thomas Bamonte told the authority's board during a meeting Wednesday in Plano. "These are folks who had plenty of opportunity to pay."

The board authorized Bamonte and its other staff to prepare the database, which could be on as soon as July. Additional legal counsel will help sort through the massive database of overdue accounts and determine which cases are ready to be taken to district court or a justice of the peace.

Bamonte didn't specify how many names might be on the list. But after the meeting, authority spokesman Michael Rey said a good estimate is about 26,000. Collectively, those vehicle owners owe the agency about $12.5 million in past-due tolls.

Past-due tolls have become a bigger issue since the authority traded toll booths for an all-electronic system. Most regular tollway users have a TollTag on their windshield, which allows money to be withdrawn automatically from a prepaid account as they drive past toll collection gantries.

For those without a TollTag, a camera system photographs their license plates and, using address information from the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, mails the vehicle's registered owners a bill.

Some Tarrant County residents have complained about receiving past-due notices for tolls from a collection agency after the original bills were sent to an old address because of a mix-up in the state's vehicle title database. But the most-wanted list will include only motorists who have accumulated more than 100 tolls and ignored those collection calls, Rey said.

Some board members asked whether the staff had properly vetted issues related to the confidentiality of vehicle registration information. Bamonte said the authority will publish only limited information about the scofflaws, including the vehicle owner's name, city and state of residence, ZIP code, amount owed and number of violations.

The goal is less about shaming the violators and more about putting them on notice that the tollway authority is serious about collecting debts, officials said. "We want everyone to know they are subject to enforcement," Bamonte said.

But one board member said he wouldn't mind dispensing a little frontier-style justice on those who use the region's toll roads with no intention of paying.

"I come down on the side of hammering these people, not being so nice about it," said board member William Elliott, a Dallas-area lawyer who lives in the Fannin County community of Ravenna and was appointed to the board by Gov. Rick Perry.

Tollway Vice Chairman Bill Moore of Plano added: "Hopefully this is going to stimulate a wave of calls from people wanting to settle their tolls."

The tollway authority board also approved a legislative program for the 2013 general session that includes asking lawmakers' permission to block vehicle registration renewals for vehicle owners with overdue toll accounts -- a practice already in place in Houston, they said.

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796

Twitter: @gdickson

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