Since the beginning of 2017, 2.2 million TxTag toll accounts have been sent to collections, racking up a billion dollars in late fees. KXAN investigators made that discovery through an open records request, following dozens of complaints from viewers – some of which had been notified of tens of thousands of dollars suddenly due on their accounts without prior notice.
The Texas Department of Transportation, which oversees the state’s tollway system, blamed customers for simply not paying up – refusing to explore whether the system itself had problems. So for three months, KXAN investigators began crowdsourcing for tips and sources – asking drivers who were unable to get help through TxTag customer service to upload their bills through a secure form for us to review.
Soon, customer service representatives came forward as whistleblowers, sharing their own frustrations with TxTag management and how they were instructed to handle upset customers. An employee manual verified that those representatives were mandated to limit call times to 5.5 minutes, regardless if customer issues were resolved. Additionally, they were told only to obtain money owed for base toll charges – and never tell customers if their accounts had been sent to collections.
With a sudden spike in collection demand letters, customers responded to our crowdsourcing initiative in full force – and soon, KXAN delivered to TxDOT hundreds of bills from viewers across the state and pressed the agency to get to the bottom of the issues – which are now under review.
During the course of our investigation, a Texas lawmaker with two toll roads in his district called for an overhaul of the system that we discovered involved not one, but six entities – clearly demonstrating a breakdown in communication and collaboration, clearly the root of the trouble customers were experiencing.
After that call, the Texas Speaker of the House added the issue to a list of items for the House Transportation Committee to tackle ahead of the next legislative session. As more lawmakers began declaring their upset publicly, both the governor and lieutenant governor reacted to TxDOT’s intent to build more toll roads across the state. With so many financial questions, those leaders ordered the agency to cease those plans and re-evaluate ways to deal with the state’s transportation challenges.
By December, legislative hearings were set to address the tollway billing problems, and KXAN learned some of the customers whose bills we sent to TxDOT were seeing their accounts resolved, including a waiver of many of those massive fines.
To best showcase the coverage for viewers and readers, KXAN created a special, interactive web page, aired a special edition of our political program dedicated to the issue, and also continued to followup in the weeks to follow the initial investigation.
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Submitted by Josh Hinkle.