Are toll violation fees fair?

July 23, 2008 4:53:15 PM PDT
It happens all the time in Harris County -- drivers run through toll lanes without paying, possibly because they're lost, or just don't have the money. But what should have cost those drivers just a few bucks for not paying their tolls can quickly add up to hundreds of dollars.Glenda Mason was in the EZ Tag store shelling out money for going through a Hardy Toll Road booth three times, even though she doesn't have an EZ Tag.

"The toll fee was 50 cents. Then there's a county attorney fee for a dollar and an administration fee of $10," Mason explained.

She says she didn't realize that portion of the road was now a toll. The toll she went through was only $1.50, but she ended up paying $34.50.

Mason recalled, "When I got the fines in the mail, I was like, 'Oh, my God!' The administration fees are outrageous."

Peter Key, Deputy Director of the Harris County Toll Road Authority, explained, "That $10 fee tacked on to that unpaid toll covers our cost -- public money we incur to go after that violation. Those are people who sit in a room looking at violation images, making phone calls, contacting the county attorney's office."

Key says you get three "free" violations before you're even sent a bill. After the third strike you have to pay. You have 45 days to do it, but after that you're facing more penalties. An additional $14 is tacked on every day for the attorney's fees, a citation fee of $50, court costs of $100 and fines between $75 and $500.

Some people learned the hard way. Annette Washington was arrested for racking up $21,000 in fines and Ronald Rendon owes more than $9,000.

"That's pretty steep, but it's only right," said EZ Tag user John Miggins. "I imagine if you're not going to take the time and go pay to get the tags you need, you deserve to be punished."

The toll authority says most violators are those whose credit cards have expired, or they've moved. So the question remains - are these fees fair or is it highway robbery? That's a question Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and the toll authority say they're looking into.

"Iit's got to be proportionate to the crime," suggested KTRK legal analyst Joel Androphy. "If the crime is minimal, it shouldn't penalize people a week's pay for a minute mistake."

Officials with the toll authority say they're working on making changes. Those recommendations are expected by the end of the year.

There are some tips for drivers. If you go through a toll lane and you don't have an EZ Tag, don't stop. Call the toll road authority and tell them about the mistake. If you get a violation in the mail, pay it immediately.

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