HOUSTON - Houston drivers are contesting millions of dollars in fines and fees charged to them by the Harris County Toll Road Authority. Now, an attorney is taking the agency to court.
Consumer expert Amy Davis is explaining why some say the huge fees are not only unfair, but also illegal.
One hundred and twenty-seven miles of toll roads stretch through Harris County.
"We have over a million transactions a day," Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said.
Those are the numbers county leaders want you to remember -- not the $158 bill Grace Clark received for two tolls.
"How do you go from $8 to that amount in a year?" Grace asked Davis.
Clark's erroneous bill popped up a year after she drove to an EZ Tag Store to add her new car to her account. While there, she paid all of her outstanding tolls. But a lag in the billing system didn't catch the toll booth she went through on the way to the EZ Tag Store or one she passed the next day, thinking her account was set up.
A full year later, Clark received the first bill that was almost 20 times what she owed because the Harris County Toll Road Authority was sending notices to the address where her car was registered, not the address on Clark's EZ Tag account.
"It's a helpless feeling," Clark said.
Toll road employees understood the problem, but Clark said they were not willing to adjust her bill.
"They're like 'I'm sorry. We can't help you,'" she recalled. "I said, 'Let me talk to your manager.' And the same thing happened."
"What disturbs me is, how did they set the fees?" asked consumer attorney John Mastriani. "Where is the money going? Is there a surplus? Is this a hidden profit center?"
Mastriani wants answers from the Toll Road Authority. When a driver doesn't pay a toll, the authority tacks on a $10 administrative fee and another $1 per violation that goes to the county attorney's office.
If the bill isn't paid in 45 days, county debt collector Linebarger, Goggan, Blair and Sampson adds on another $14 per violation.
"Where does this $11 come from? Where does this $14 come from?" Mastriani asked. "We have a right to know where these fines came from."
When no one would answer Mastriani, he filed a lawsuit against the HCTRA to find out. Mastriani said there has to be a basis for what companies charge consumers in fine and fees.
For example, if you're late on your cable bill, the company can only assess a late fee that pays it back for the work that went into collecting your payment. In other words, the cable company can't make extra money from your late fee. He said the toll road can't either.
"You have to have a reasonable expectation of recovery for your loss -- not (act as) a profit center," he said.
"If I blow through a toll, how much is that costing the county in damages?" Davis asked Emmett.
"It's not just the question of costing the county. It's how much effort has to be put in to track you down and collect that toll that you blew through," Emmett answered.
The Toll Road Authority collected more than $28 million last year from those extra administrative fees.
Linebarger racked up tens of millions more. Emmett said in 2005, the state legislature gave county commissioners the authority to add up to $100 for each missed toll.
"So, Harris County Commissioner's Court decided at that time to really low ball the fee and set it at $10," he said. "It's stayed at $10 ever since."
It's little comfort to toll customers such as Clark, who are fined erroneously. She wrote a letter to Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. His office asked the toll authority to look into it her account. That's when HCTRA finally removed the charges.
"You actually wrote the mayor," Davis said to Clark. "Should it take that much effort?"
"Nothing should take that much effort," Clark said. "And imagine all the people who go, 'OK, this is $150,' and they just write the check."
"You think the system is fair?" Davis asked Emmett.
"I think it's fundamentally fair," he said. "Are there mistakes? Yes, but with over a million transactions a day and you're talking about an enterprise, that's billions of dollars."
The next hearing in the local lawsuit against the Toll Road Authority is in August. KPRC 2 News will be there and let you know what happens.
In a similar lawsuit in Dallas, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last month that the North Texas Toll Authority can legally charge drivers $25 for each missed toll.
Let Clark's case be an example. If you are having a difficult time getting the toll road to correct a bill you feel you don't owe, send a letter to your elected leaders in the county or the city.
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