Questions surround tollway's new towing policy

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by JONATHAN BETZ

WFAA

Posted on September 19, 2012 at 9:56 PM

Updated Thursday, Sep 20 at 1:10 AM

Poll:
Is the NTTA going too far by towing cars of repeat toll violators?

PLANO — On a day when the North Texas Tollway Authority was talking about towing cars, Sarathy Badri of Richardson decided it was a good time to settle his unpaid tolls.

“I don’t want to be in trouble,” he said while holding a “past due” notice for $112 — not enough to get his car towed, yet it still made him nervous.

“I just want to pay my toll and get it over with,” Badri said.

On Wednesday, the NTTA board approved a controversial plan to try and convince more people to pay their tolls. The board’s vote bans from its toll roads the 33,000 drivers who have failed to pay at least 100 tolls. If troopers catch them on one of the roads managed by the NTTA, the agency says their cars could be seized and towed.

“We're just trying to get people to pay their tolls... very simple,” said NTTA spokesman Michael Rey. “If you choose to use the tollway, pay for what you use.”

He said the authority could start the program as early as late October. But it’s also raising serious questions over whether the organization is overstepping its bounds.

“Point blank, there is nothing in Texas law that allows the Tollway Authority to do what they’re proposing at this time,” said Dallas-based criminal defense attorney Peter Schulte. He fully expects lawsuits to challenge the legality of the NTTA’s move.

“They don’t have the authority until the legislature says they have the authority,” Schulte said.

The NTTA, however, is confident it is entitled to seize the vehicles of its top scofflaws.

Violators will be first warned repeatedly and given an administrative hearing. If those are ignored — which directors say often happens — then state troopers who happen to pull them over can have their car impounded.

“We believe we do have the authority to do that,” Rey said. “This is another tool in our toolbox.”

Dallas business attorney Clint David believes state law can be interpreted to give NTTA the power to tow, but he agrees it's not explicitly allowed.

"Nowhere in here do I see the authority to tow cars," he said. "The real question would be: Is this a natural legal extension of NTTA's collection rights and enforcement?"

The Texas Department of Public Safety — whose troopers would be charged with getting the cars towed — didn’t respond to requests for comment on the plan Wednesday.

DPS spokesperson Tom Vinger only released a statement saying the department “is currently assessing its options, and will work with NTTA to determine the impact of this decision.”

Collecting from deadbeat drivers has been a growing issue for the authority since it started removing toll booths in 2008 as a cost-saving move and transitioning to all electronic tolls.

Previously, troopers would chase after toll booth runners. Now the responsibility falls on the NTTA to collect its money.

Cameras now snap pictures of license plates and mail drivers a bill for their toll. The NTTA, however, has found the mailings to be largely toothless.

Some violations were turned over to the Department of Public Safety and justice of the peace courts. But that process proved troublesome and drained agency resources.

The NTTA hopes its towing police — along with legislative action — will give it more power to chase after the worst violators.

E-mail jbetz@wfaa.com

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