Motorists who refuse to pay tolls would be unable to renew yearly vehicle 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 we're talking about is tightening the system so people know there are consequences," said agency Chairman Kenneth Barr, a former Fort Worth mayor.
Barr stressed that the tougher punishments would be sought only 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 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.
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"What we're talking about here are people who are gaming the system," he said.
Tollway officials are seeking a lawmaker who might be willing to sponsor such a bill. March 8 is the deadline for filing bills, other than local measures and those considered emergencies.
The bill would affect vehicle owners in Tarrant, Denton, Dallas and Collin counties, which make up the authority's territory. Johnson County will be added after the planned 2014 opening of the Chisholm Trail Parkway, a 28-mile toll road from downtown Fort Worth to Cleburne.It's the agency's latest attempt to close an enforcement weakness that became glaringly apparent after Dallas-Fort Worth'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 authority did have some success the past six months publicizing the names of car owners with 100 or more unpaid tolls on its website, www.ntta.org. Since that list went live in July, about $1.86 million has been recovered, communications director Kimberly Jackson said.
But to capture the rest of the missing money, the agency needs enforcement with more teeth, Executive Director Gerry Carrigan said. 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 is seeking state permission to create administrative hearings. Officials stressed that hearings would not be in court but would resemble a courtroom proceeding in 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 authority tried to block a car registration.
Seeking a ban
The agency is also 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 trespassers and would be subject to arrest.
At least one other toll agency in Texas, the Harris County Toll Road Authority in the Houston area, can block car registrations.
Commissioners courts in Tarrant, Denton, Dallas and Collins counties have adopted resolutions endorsing the authority's proposed legislation, Carrigan said.
Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796