HOUSTON - If you travel any of the tollways in Harris County, you don't have a choice -- you're going to pay whatever rate the toll road authority decides.
But there is one fee you can actually avoid. Local 2 Investigates discovered a way to get those toll tags so many of us are buying for free.
EZ Tags sold by the Harris County Toll Road Authority allow you to breeze through toll booths without stopping. A chip embedded in the sticker sends a signal to a device every time you pass through a tolling station that lets the authority know to deduct the amount of the toll from your EZ Tag account. But before you pay a single toll, you have to buy the actual EZ Tag. HCTRA charges $15 for the first three tags and $10 for every tag after that.
"You're paying to pay," said EZ Tag customer Jennifer Hyland.
That statement seems especially true since Local 2 Investigates discovered you don't have to pay a dime for a toll tag. Both the North Texas Tollway Authority and the Texas Department of Transportation offer tags for free. Just as you would with an EZ Tag, you'll have to open an account and load money onto it. Because the agencies have agreements with Harris County's Toll Road Authority, you can use the tags from Dallas or Austin on any toll road in the state.
"Sounds like a much better deal," said driver Kelsey Doyle when KPRC Local 2 told her about the free tags.
"Why wouldn't people be inclined to do that?" consumer investigator Amy Davis asked HCTRA's Eric Hanson.
"Well, obviously, that's their choice to do," he replied.
"You're saying HCTRA isn't making a penny off of charging drivers?" Davis asked.
"Yeah, it's a break-even proposition," answered Hanson. "That's our goal, is to break even."
Hanson said each EZ Tag costs HCTRA $7.87. In 2011, the authority collected $5,721,592.65 in new EZ Tag fees. HCTRA said it spent $5,230,363.00 to buy the tags. When you add in the cost of the installation kit, instructions, postage and customer service at brick and mortar EZ Tag stores, the toll road authority said the $15 fee is a wash.
"It doesn't seem like that little thing would be very expensive to manufacture, in my opinion," driver Tom Carmichael said.
In fact, Local 2 Investigates discovered the toll tags from all three agencies are made by the same company. The NTTA in Dallas tells us it pays $8.77 a tag, gives them to its customers at no cost and still comes out ahead.
"If our neighbors to the north are doing it this way, maybe we should offer drivers the same convenience here," Davis said to Hanson.
"Well another aspect to look at is we don't think it's good public policy to give away a public asset ... which the tag is," said Hanson.
The HCTRA said since it's not making any money off the tags, they don't care where drivers get them. The tolls will still go to the proper toll road system wherever you drive. It is important that you register your license plate with whatever agency you decide to get your tag from. Not doing so could result in toll violations.
To get a Toll Tag from the NTTA, click here: https://csc.ntta.org/olcsc/.
To get a TxTAG from the Texas Department of Transportation, click here: http://www.txtag.org/.
If you have a news tip or question for KPRC Local 2 Investigates, drop them an e-mail or call their tipline at (713) 223-TIPS (8477). Copyright 2012 by Click2Houston.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.