Texas Visitors: Beware the Unaccountable Toll Tax Trap

By Ben Westhoff, freelance writer for the Dallas News

I visited Dallas, on business, for the first time in March. I enjoyed the local sights, shuttling around the northern suburbs and coming into the city for delicious Tex-Mex and an excellent rock show. The weather was great; everyone was kind.

But one aspect of my Texas odyssey left a bad taste in my mouth. Upon returning home to Hoboken, N.J., I received a notice in the mail from a Montana-based collection agency called Violation Management Services. It indicated that I had been billed for four 60-cent tolls in Texas , plus a $5 service fee for each. These $22.40 worth of charges had already been conveniently – make that inconveniently – charged to my credit card.

I had no idea what this was about. Though I remembered handing over dollars to some toll attendants, I certainly didn't recall driving through any tolls without paying.

Upon investigation, however, I realized this was exactly what I had done. It turns out that I couldn't have paid even if I'd wanted to. And the same confusing system ensnares other visitors all the time.

Let's back up a little. Upon arriving at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, I endured a long shuttle ride to the airport's rental car center. After getting over the fact that I was going to have to pay a huge percentage of my Advantage Rent A Car bill in taxes and fees (including a 15 percent sales tax, an 11.11 percent airport fee, a $2.50-per-day licensing fee, a $4-per-day airport concession fee and a 77-cents-per-day transportation fee) I quickly scanned my rental agreement and signed it.

What I apparently glossed over – and what other Dallas renters miss all the time – is a clause permitting the rental car company to turn over the collection of any unpaid tolls to a third-party agency. Why would I have paid the clause any mind? I'm not the type to break any traffic laws, much less bust through tolls like this was an episode of Dukes of Hazzard.

Little did I know that along State Highway 121, physical tolls have been replaced by electronic tolls. Instead of humans or machines collecting change, cameras snap pictures of your license plate, and you aren't given the option of stopping to pay.

It works like this: If you have a TxTag, Toll Tag or EZ Tag, the charge is deducted from your account. If you don't, a bill is sent to the address corresponding with the vehicle's license plate number. That means that if you're driving your own car, the fee (plus a surcharge) is sent to you at home. (If your kid is driving your car, it still gets sent to you at home, but that's another matter.)

But if you're driving a rental car, the bill is sent to the rental car company. Then – in the case of Advantage and at least a few others – the rental car company passes it along to a third-party collection agency, which adds a service charge and bills you. I had to pay $5 per "infraction," but some companies hit you a lot harder; renters with Thrifty and Dollar are charged $25 each.

I called Violation Management Services, Advantage's collection agency, to complain. The agent said that although plenty of others like me have made similar complaints, we have no recourse.

But I should look on the bright side, she said; until last fall, the company charged $40 for each infraction of this type. Only after being besieged with complaints did they lower their fee to $5. Why? "Because it's not fair to you to have to pay $40 for something you don't have any control over," she explained.

But $5 is fair?

The agent next referred me to TxTag, the company that handled the Highway 121 tollway when I visited. (As of April 4, responsibility was handed over to the North Texas Tollway Authority.)

She explained that, yes, other people had the same complaint. But she implied that we were all a bunch of whiny complainers, since there are clearly marked signs on 121 explaining that the road is a tollway.

But there's no indication that 121 is a special kind of toll road. It's beyond me how a non-local can be expected to know the difference between (A) toll roads where you can pay with change and (B) toll roads that send you a bill in the mail. (Though more common in other countries, electronic tolls that employ video cameras are still quite rare in the U.S.)

Sure, if I'd seen a sign saying, "Renters, get the heck off the road now, or you're going to get stuck with surcharges!" I would have exited immediately and hoped my GPS could come up with an alternate route. But as far as I could tell, Highway 121 drivers aren't given any explanation of what's going on until they get to the toll itself, at which time they're informed that they can use a tag or else "Pay By Mail."

This is where it begins to seem like a cruel hoax. Pay by mail? Huh? Where does one get the envelope?

I next asked the TxTag operator what course of action she would have suggested for me. Avoiding the road altogether? "Pretty much," she said. "In the case of 121, that's what we would recommend. Otherwise, there will be extra charges, and there will be extra fees."

An NTTA representative was more sympathetic. "If I was from another state, I might not [understand] something like that either," he said, suggesting that the next time I'm in town I use service roads instead of Highway 121.

Perhaps Advantage would have more helpful advice, given the number of renters they send out on the streets of North Texas every day?

But no. An agent said that the next time I was in town, I had another option. She gave me an 800 number to call shortly after going through an electronic toll, and the charge would be excused. (They even have a sign saying as much on the premises.)

But that number is for TxTag, which no longer administers the road. And an operator with the new administrator, NTTA, said she had no idea what the Advantage agent was talking about; they would not, in fact, excuse these charges.

Read the rest of the article HERE


Anonymous said...

This crap is outrageous! Time to rip out TXtags, and remove license plates and replace with an untitled vehicle tag.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sal,

Is there any way to get some legislation passed, either federal or state, that addresses this issue? My state rep. is Valinda Bolton, and my federal rep. is Lloyd Doggett... It seems that this puts U.S. citizens in a NO-WIN situation. I would really like to see some legislation passed that protects drivers who cannot physically pay a toll from being overcharged.

Anonymous said...

put a bikerack on your trailer hitch so it's harder for the camera to see your plate. do this while it's still legal.

Anonymous said...

This exemplifies flim-flam highway robbery brought to you by self-ingratiating, self-serving politico trollers. Why don't Texan trollers become more transparent and just rob travellers at gunpoint at the airports instead and save time -- that'll certainly be more efficient and effective until travellers start boycotting Texas.

Anonymous said...

If a small businessman tried to fleece the public with this kind of scam they would throw him/her under the jail. Here's a way to get their attention. Tell the rental car company that you won't sign the agreement unless they strike the toll TAX provision in their contract. If they received a pile of letters from "consumers" that threaten to rent from another company - somebody would get the message. I would "out" the collection agencies as well and find out if they are doing business for other entities. If so, call and complain to those people as well.

Anonymous said...

Bottom line: lazy, amoral scam artist trollers connive and conspire to usurp hard-earned dollars of working stiffs while our political representatives are at least negligent if not (also) betraying constituent trust assumed.

Anonymous said...

need vandals to spray paint the damn cameras and lawyers to sue the tollers and rental car companies

Anonymous said...

Wow ! Really makes you proud to be a Texan, huh? What hospitality we endorse. As long as we have elected officials turning their back on this kind of crap, it will continue to happen. Another example of a half-asses plan that wasn't thought out by the planners. In reality, someone should be fired for this kind of shoddy work.

Anonymous said...

yeah and if ole gov slick perry gets another 4 years in office things will get even worse. the only reason that nuttjob is running again is to further push his TTC plans into fruition.

Anonymous said...

I agree. I cannot imagine how people can support Gov. Perry and the crap that he has supported and "key people" he has appointed as his pawns. If he is re-elected again, after he got 39% or so votes last time, then Texans deserve what they get. A state that used to be a leader, a model for others to follow, and a state to be proud of will cease to exist. Texas will end up being a giant transportation artery for free trade and the supporting cast of characters from foreign countries will come with it. We are already importing huge quantities of vegetables and fruit from Mexico and have no control over the pesticides, herbicides, and other sprays that they use. On our side of the border, growers struggle to raise crops because of sticking to the regulations that Mexico ignores. And our politicians turn the other way. Perry may make a good president of Mexico, but he has to go.

Anonymous said...

I have also been burned by 121, I rent from National and they charge anywhere from a $15 - $25 "processing fee" for these tolls, NTTA tacks on a charge for having to "mail", so I was recently billed $16.60 for a .60 toll ($15 to National, $1 to NTTA), gets better I got a bill for $202.00 for $2 in tolls ($100 collection fee to NTTA's collection agency since National never processed and paid the toll and $100 to National). Fortunately, I am a regular renter and National waived all the junk fees, but their agents still don't warn renters when leaving DFW. Not sure how this is legal, the signs are not clear and the fact that there is still construction going on (and has been for the 3 years I have traveled 121) leaves a driver to think they just haven't installed the toll booths. I had a humurous call with an NTTA agent who had a solution for me, get a Toll Tag, except they fine you for driving a vehicle with a license plate that doesn't match the Toll Tag so the agent's solution was that I should call or NTTA Monday through Friday to update the rental car information from the parking lot at DFW and avoid the toll roads until I am sure NTTA has updated the information, which doesn't quite work on Sunday night, since they are closed, which is when I fly in(wow, that is convenient, wonder where NTTA is finding their superstar braniacs??). So, now I am avoiding 121, unfortunately the most direct route and the route that is returned on any major map engine.

Anonymous said...

we've had tx tags for over a yr now and just received a bill from NTTA for a 1.30 toll (from April?). I called NTTA to ask why we were billed when we have a tx tag. I was on hold for about 20 minutes when the woman finally came on the line and asked me my invoice number. I told her, and she had absolutely nothing helpful to say. She said to ask tx tag why it didn't pick up. when I asked why NTTA and TX Tag couldn't get together and be more uniform in their billing, etc, she said she didn't know and she said "bye" and hung up on me. Lovely customer service. I don't understand why the tx tag wouldn't work on hwy 121 for one day in April, but it worked all of the other days of the year. Sounds like something fishy is going on, and the NTTA phone people are probably sick of NOT explaining it to all of the confused and frustrated people!