Are $11 Toll Fees Fair?

By Amy Davis

HOUSTON - One woman asked KPRC Local 2 investigative reporter Amy Davis about excessive toll road fees.

We expect to pay about $1.50 when we pass through most toll booths. But, the Harris County Toll Road Authority charged an Alief woman the regular toll fee plus $11 every time she passed a toll.

Davis got some answers about the hefty fees.

You don't have to be a math whiz to realize that $11 per toll can add up really fast.

But what's worse? No one told Sorcha Hysmith about the extra charges until she'd racked up nearly $1,000 on her EZ Tag account.

"It's a ridiculous amount of money," Hysmith told Davis. "And it's money that we just don't have."

Sorcha Hysmith's been strapped for cash since she was laid off last year.

She's working now, but says when the Toll Road Authority tried to add money to her EZ Tag using her debit card, the bank declined the charge.

"That's happened once or twice before since the layoffs. And I've gotten a note and called them and said, 'Just run the card through again. There's money in the bank now, so it'll be OK,'" Hysmith explained.

But this time when her bank declined the debit on Jan. 28, Hysmith didn't get a notice.

She continued to use the toll road to get to and from work until she got the first notice by e-mail 12 days later on Feb. 10. It told her there was a problem with her account. And it was a big problem.

"I had $96 in unpaid tolls and the penalties were $980, so I was floored," said Hysmith.

After Davis called, the Toll Road Authority told her it discovered the first three e-mails it sent were blocked by Hysmith's Internet server, but they say she is still responsible for the charges.

"We're very sympathetic to Ms. Hysmith's situation," said Lawanda Howse, a spokeswoman for the Harris County Toll Road Authority. "And so we have worked with her on several different occasions."

Hysmith admits that since she was laid off, she's had to ask the Toll Road Authority to waive penalty fees. She says no one told her there was a limit to the waivers.

"How can you hold a customer accountable for fees that she didn't even know about?" Davis asked Howse. "She didn't know she was in default and you guys have proof of that."

"Right," replied Howse. "What we can't be responsible for is knowing if her e-mail server did not send her the e-mail notification."

The Toll Road Authority said it will waive penalty and administrative fees once a year or up to three times over the life of the account.

Hysmith has had her account for 10 years, but the Toll Road Authority said she's out of chances.

HCTRA says the $11 fee is standard. Ten dollars is an administrative fee set by the Harris County Commissioners Court. One dollar is for attorneys fees set by the state.

Davis spoke with Hysmith's County Commissioner, Steve Radack. He put in a call to the Toll Road Authority, but he said they told him they couldn't waive the $980.

Radack said she could always take her complaint to a commissioner's meeting to ask for relief.

If you have a consumer question to "Ask Amy," send her an e-mail.Copyright 2006 by All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.