Harris County Toll Road Authority mistakenly bills thousands of drivers

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by Jeremy Rogalski / KHOU 11 News I-Team

khou.com

Posted on February 13, 2014 at 11:54 PM

Updated Friday, Feb 14 at 12:41 AM

HOUSTON -- Wes Jordan is one ticked-off Texan when it comes to Harris County tolls.

"Wake up Harris County! Your toll road authority is ripping people off,” Jordan said.

His frustration and anger all start with where he lives.

"Nowhere near Harris County,” Jordan said.

His home and work is near Waco, but even so, HCTRA, the Harris County Toll Road Authority, claimed he blew through tolls in Houston three times without paying.

I-Team: “You're thinking what?”

Jordan: “There has to be a mistake.”

It was a big mistake. On the violation notice, a tiny plate number on a grainy night time photo was nowhere close to the plates on the vehicle Jordan owns. So naturally, he called HCTRA to complain.

"She asked me, 'Mr. Jordan do you own a Dodge,’” Jordan recalled.

He doesn’t own a Dodge.

"And the next question was, 'Mr. Jordan do you own a Cadillac,’" he said.

There’s no Cadillac in Jordan’s driveway either. And that’s not all. The violation notice, which gave him just two weeks to pay before referring it to a collection firm, was sent to the wrong address.

"At that point I asked, 'How is it that your data is so messed up?'”

It's also messed up way off in Columbus Mississippi, where Lisa Bowen lives.

"They got the wrong name, the wrong tag number and the wrong car,” Bowen said.

“I thought this is just silly,” she said.

Silly, because Bowen said she hadn't been to Texas in ten years. Add to that, HCTRA’s violation notice was one digit off from her actual license plate. It was enough to make her think the letter was bogus—from someone pretending to be HCTRA and fishing for money.

“Scam, scam, scam,” she said.

But six weeks later, another letter arrived, this time from a collections firm.

“Demanding more money, and the amount doubled in just six weeks,” said Bowen’s son Jeremiah Bogan.

“That's insane, that's outrageous,” Bogan said.

So how big of a problem is this? The I-Team discovered every year on average, more than 21,000 toll violations are sent out, for license plates that HCTRA flat out misread.

So we asked HCTRA Spokesman Adam Collett some questions.

I-Team: "It seems like the system completely just failed here.”

Collett: “I can't share that characterization. “Our system really is designed to be as thorough as a system of this size could possibly be.”

Collett said HCTRA has checks and balances in place to spot mistakes, including a review of every computer-generated violation photo, by a human pair of eyes.

"Our accuracy rate is about 99.5 percent,” Collett said.

But the I-Team discovered there's a slight catch to that number. That’s because it's largely based on the number of complaints HCTRA receives. So if motorists don't spot errors and don't complain, they're not factored in.

And there’s another problem too. Just ask Mike Rosier, who lives all the way in suburban Chicago. HCTRA sent him a violation notice with a license plate photo on a semi-truck.

Rosier drives an Oldsmobile sedan.

Rosier: "So it's not even close.”

I-Team: “What do you make of all of this?”

Rosier: “I almost feel violated, just like this notice says--violation--I feel like we've been violated.”

Turns out, when HCTRA manually reviews those plate numbers, it doesn't routinely check the type of vehicle to make sure they match.

But when we asked HCTRA:

I-Team: "Wouldn't it make sense to cross reference the digits on a plate with the make and model of the vehicle?”

Collett: “There's a lot more factors to that.”

I-Team: “If you're trying to be as accurate as possible, wouldn't you want to know if it belongs to a truck or a sedan?”

Collett: “Again, I can't answer that question without knowing all the other factors, it's just not that simple an answer.”

I-Team: “I think our viewers are going to see it as simple and I think they're going to see you as dodging a very simple question.”

Collett: “I can't concur with your characterization there.”

All of the motorists in this story ultimately did get their cases cleared—but only after they complained, or the I-Team intervened.

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