AUSTIN -- For those accused of taking Texas tollways for a free ride, the new fee is infamy.
"There's $27 million of unpaid tolls that need to be collected, come back to the state to help us pay for these roads," Veronica Beyer, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) told KVUE Wednesday.
Under a new law passed during the 83rd Texas Legislature, TxDOT released the names of the state's top 25 toll road scofflaws Thursday morning. All of the names of the top 25 belong to drivers with addresses listed in or near the greater Austin area.
At the bottom of the list, with more than 3,600 unpaid tolls, is Austin resident Alex Garcia. According to TxDOT he owes more than $82,000. Renee Lee Ferguson of Hutto is listed with more than 8,700 unpaid tolls, owing more than $166,000. At the top of the list is Ronny Williams of Pflugerville, with more than 14,000 unpaid tolls totaling just over $236,000.
"Whoah, that's more than a house," Pflugerville resident Sharon Cobb told KVUE Thursday. Sam Storms, also of Pflugerville responded, "I think they ought to find a way to find the folks and make them pay."
A telephone call to the number listed for Williams, as with nearly every other name on the list, resulted in a message that the number had either been disconnected or was not accepting calls. A trip to his last registered address led KVUE not to Williams, but to current resident David Washington.
"That sounds like a lot of money," Washington said when presented with the TxDOT list. Since moving into the Pflugerville home in May, Washington says his mailbox has been full of letters from TxDOT. "At first I thought it was me. So I had to ask my girlfriend and make sure we were doing what we had to do. But she told me to look at the name, and we just started putting it back in the mailbox."
Surprised to hear about the astronomical toll charges attributed to the previous resident, and the new program of publicity that led us to his address, Washington says now it all makes sense.
"I think that that's a good way to get the violators," said Washington. "I don't think there's any other way to get them."
Beyer says one of the top offenders received 44 invoices and 124 violation notices. That's before the final letter notifying them their name would be made public if they failed to contact TxDOT and discuss their charges. Another offender received 51 invoices before the final notification they would soon be published under the new program.
"Our records show that the vast majority of the chronic toll violators have been engaged with TxDOT either through the judicial process or by contacting our customer service center," Beyer said in an email Thursday. "Routinely, these folks have received two invoices, one violation notice, multiple collection letters and phone calls, and could have possibly received a letter for court processing, could have received a last chance letter for court proceedings, and received a letter from court to appear in court."
The largest number of violators come from the Central Texas area, where the majority of the toll roads managed by TxDOT are located. Those tollways include SH 45, Loop 1 (Mopac) and parts of SH 130. The others are SH 255 in Laredo and part of SH 99 in Houston. Those violators are further down on the extended list, which features more than 28,000 drivers with 100 or more unpaid tolls.
"It's a short list of toll roads but it could be anyone living anywhere in the state," Beyer said. "In fact we have a lot of violators in the Houston area, a lot of violators in the Dallas area. They've just driven through our toll roads and haven't paid."
The moral of the story hasn't been lost on Washington.
"Make sure you pay your toll," he summed up.
And avoid the fast lane to shame.