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newsInvestigations

Texas tollway authorities show little mercy for Texans of color, vulnerable communities

The News’ examination found that the methods Texas uses to criminally charge vehicle owners for unpaid toll road fees may stand on shaky legal ground.

On a crisp February morning, LaTasha and Morris Shepard stood in front of a Denton County justice of the peace, trying to avoid jail.

A letter delivered a few weeks before to the couple’s McKinney home didn’t mince words: If Morris Shepard didn’t show up to court, a warrant would go out for his arrest.

Millions of Texans rely on toll roads daily in a state that has built more paid thoroughfares over the past two decades than almost all U.S. states combined. The affordability, safety and management of these roads impact us all, especially as some leaders admit more are likely coming to handle substantial growth throughout the state and in North Texas.

Morris Shepard is a disabled military veteran in his 60s who served 17 years in the Army. LaTasha, his wife, works as a legal advocate for the National Urban League. They knew they could not miss court.

His alleged crime? A total of $272 in unpaid tolls.

Morris Shepard happens to live in Texas, where there is little mercy for those who fail to pay toll fees, even if, like in his case, it’s because of a bank account error. Texas is one of only a handful of states that criminalize toll drivers for unpaid fees and where courts regularly issue arrest warrants over the debts. It’s also not uncommon for governments in cities like Dallas to post so-called tollway offender names on county websites, a yearlong Dallas Morning News investigation on tolls found.

LaTasha Shepard of McKinney appeared in court with her husband to try to settle his...
LaTasha Shepard of McKinney appeared in court with her husband to try to settle his citations for unpaid toll tickets with the North Texas Tollway Authority. The dispute was not settled and the couple was told to return to court seven weeks later.(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

On average, Texas seizes thousands of driver’s licenses a year and blocks vehicle registration stickers for unpaid toll fees. A total of 226,847 motorists last year received letters that their registration renewals would be blocked by just two of the state’s largest tollway authorities — the North Texas Tollway Authority in Dallas and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority in Austin, The News’ reporting revealed. NTTA has also impounded a handful of cars over the last 10 years.

And unlike other states, which offer discounts to drivers who frequently use tollways or for those from low-income households, most of Texas’ more than two dozen toll operators offer few concessions or price cuts.

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The vigorous collection practices continue even though some of the state’s largest public tollway operators have amassed so much money in cash reserves they could offer millions of drivers free access to toll roads and still have enough money to pay their debts to investors, The News’ investigation found.

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For example, the Harris County Toll Road Authority, which manages toll roads in the Houston area, is holding $1 billion in unrestricted cash and investments as of the fiscal year that ended Feb. 28, 2022, the most recent report available to the public. From 2019 to 2022, the authority transferred another $1.06 billion in surplus toll revenues to Harris County to pay for transportation-related items that did not include customer discounts, according to the February 2022 financial statement and an independent auditor’s report.

LaTasha Shepard holds the letter her husband received at their McKinney home notifying him...
LaTasha Shepard holds the letter her husband received at their McKinney home notifying him that a warrant would be issued for his arrest over unpaid tolls. The couple contacted the North Texas Tollway Authority to try to address the debt but were still required to appear in court.(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)
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Other toll operators say the reserves allow them to borrow at lower interest rates to build and maintain future roads. “It’s incredibly expensive,” said Nancy St. Pierre, NTTA spokeswoman. “People underestimate how much that is.”

In addition to reviewing audits and financial documents for the state’s three largest public tollway systems for roads that were built as early as 1983, The News’ investigation included interviews with dozens of elected officials, legal analysts, county tax assessors and court clerks. Clerks are responsible for processing tollway tickets for unpaid fines and tax assessors issue vehicle registration blocks.

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The News attempted to speak with the state’s three largest tollway operators, nearly two dozen justices of the peace in Dallas, Collin, Tarrant and Denton counties that handle toll tickets and state and national transportation officials. Journalists also attended court hearings and reviewed thousands of pages of documents officials sent after receiving Texas Public Information Act requests.

The investigation revealed North Texas — where the pace of construction of tollways over the past two decades has far exceeded other regions in the state — is the epicenter for criminal enforcement of unpaid tolls.

Among other findings: Citations issued by the NTTA — which oversees five toll roads, two bridges and a tunnel in Collin, Dallas, Denton and Tarrant counties — eclipse all other cases handled by some justices of the peace and municipal courts in North Texas, including evictions, debt collections and small claims disputes. To handle the backlog of cases, a Tarrant County judge told The News he has to pay his staff overtime.

Tarrant Co. Justice of the Peace points to lack of resources and staff to handle NTTA toll violators
Sergio L. De Leon and his staff have received many toll citations. To handle the workload, he has asked Tarrant County Commissioners for an additional clerk.

Justice of the Peace Sergio De Leon showed The News a standing-room-only storage area filled with active cases of defendants who have not responded to notices and in a matter of weeks will have their driver’s licenses suspended unless they enter a plea to clear the citations. NTTA representatives who appear in court to negotiate with defendants have been so overwhelmed by the number of citations that key evidence is sometimes left out of court files, according to a Dallas attorney who shared the public files of his ticketed clients with The News.

The News’ examination also found that the methods Texas uses to criminally charge vehicle owners may stand on shaky legal ground. The only available evidence that triggers toll fees is a photo of a vehicle’s license plate traveling a toll road. Prosecutors can’t legally meet the burden of proof necessary in a criminal case with just a photo of a vehicle, several legal experts said.

Under criminal law, evidence must support convicting someone without any doubt that they acted illegally. If there isn’t proof to show who was driving, there isn’t enough evidence to convict, they said. In 2019, the Texas Legislature voted overwhelmingly to ban red-light cameras because of similar concerns.

“You have to prove in a criminal case beyond a reasonable doubt that a person drove a vehicle through without paying a toll,” said Lisa Foster, a retired California superior court judge who is now co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, an organization that works to ensure fines are equitably imposed and enforced. “You can’t prosecute a car, you have to prosecute people for doing things illegally.”

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It’s also unclear whether some toll operators are giving drivers a chance to dispute registration blocks on their vehicles, The News found. While state law spells out a person’s right to request a court hearing over a registration block no later than 30 days after they are notified, the NTTA said only two people have set a hearing since it began collecting tolls. However, an attorney in Dallas who defends people for toll citations provided The News with documents supporting multiple requests he sent to NTTA that went unanswered.

Another troubling dilemma is the fact that it appears that some toll operators might not have processes in place to adequately ensure that drivers understand the fees and fine they are being charged. The News’ investigation found some people are routinely surprised by penalties. Sometimes, they occur because drivers don’t know their credit cards stored with the tollway authority have expired, the investigation found. Other times, it’s because someone sold the vehicle but didn’t notify the state about the sale. NTTA said it sends notifications to anyone who opts into their alerts. State lawmakers passed a law last year that now requires tollway operators to notify drivers if the payment methods they link to their NTTA accounts have expired.

Tarrant County Justice of the Peace Precinct 5 Sergio L. De Leon thumbs through some of the...
Tarrant County Justice of the Peace Precinct 5 Sergio L. De Leon thumbs through some of the thousands of pending toll citations that fill the cabinets of his Fort Worth office. De Leon's court has been inundated with unpaid toll tickets for toll violations on the Chisolm Trail Parkway.(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

Still, the notification efforts haven’t helped Texans like Morris Shepard who, to date, has spent countless hours trying to resolve his issue with NTTA, which pursued him for unpaid tolls when it could not withdraw money from his bank account. His account was frozen suddenly because of potential fraud, he said. Shepard, like so many other drivers The News interviewed, still ended up in court.

The News also found that toll enforcement across North Texas overwhelmingly impacts people of color and those who live in low- to moderate-income communities.

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The News analyzed 10 years of data, from 2013 to 2023, for roughly 160,000 tickets issued across the state for failure to pay tolls. The analysis found nearly 40% of defendants were African American drivers like the Shepards, or Fort Worth single mother Dee Davis, who owed $17,200 in tolls and penalties, even though Black people make up only 13% of active license holders in Texas. The analysis was based on data provided by municipal and justice of the peace courts under a voluntary reporting program of the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Tollway operators acknowledged that their systems make mistakes. NTTA, for example, processes close to 3 million transactions a day, St. Pierre said. Most are undisputed. But when there’s an error, NTTA corrects it, she said.

The CTRMA in Austin also “strives for fairness” and will dismiss charges if it is proven that its technology or processes were at fault, said spokeswoman Jori Lui.

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Bottom line: Taking a toll road is optional, operators said.

“If you don’t like the amount you’re being charged, whether it’s on our roads or any other, don’t do it,” St. Pierre said.

How it started

The collection concerns held by so many people The News spoke to didn’t always exist.

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That’s because toll fee collection used to be far simpler.

Those born before 1989 may remember throwing a few quarters in a large bin and waiting for a guard rail to rise as you made it through a toll road. If you didn’t have the exact amount, you drove to an attended booth for change.

Back then, payment was guaranteed because drivers were forced to stop at a toll plaza to pay or toss money into a catch basket, said Mark Muriello, director of policy and government affairs at the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, a Washington, D.C.-based worldwide association for the owners and operators of toll facilities.

In 1989, North Texas was among the first communities in the country to contract with a company to manage an automatic cash payment system for tolls, according to news reports.

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While the changes created a need for more technology, it made the process more efficient, Muriello said. There were fewer accidents because drivers no longer had to merge into traffic after leaving toll plazas, he said.

By 2009, electronic toll tags largely ended cash-pay tolling. That’s when drivers started mounting electronic tags they received from tollway operators to their car’s front mirrors. The tags contained microchips that connected to prepaid toll accounts that drivers set up online. Now, each time a driver enters a tollway, an electronic reader above the toll road scans the microchip inside the tag and a toll fee is debited from the driver’s account.

For drivers who don’t have toll tags, an image of their license plate is taken and the tollway operator uses it to scan Department of Motor Vehicles records for the car’s registered owner. Tollway operators then send a bill to the name listed on the DMV’s website as the owner.

The big squeeze

While technology made it easier for drivers to use toll roads, it made it harder for toll operators to collect fees for people without toll tags.

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So NTTA doubled down. By 2010, NTTA began keeping records of vehicle owners who did not have toll tags and frequently used a toll without paying. It slapped these drivers with fees and penalties, which sometimes added another 80% to their toll costs, according to articles from The News at the time. Two years later, it created a “Top Violators” webpage that contained the names of individuals who owed money for more than 100 outstanding tolls. In a 2012 news release, NTTA said the list was designed to provide the public with a way to easily determine if they owed a significant debt and put them on notice that they may be subject to collections lawsuits and other enforcement actions.

Over the next few years, NTTA published additional lists for what it described as “deadbeats.” The authority sued those who wound up on this list in justice of the peace courts throughout North Texas, News articles show. CTRMA, which oversees six toll roads in the Austin area, also refers cases to justice of the peace courts, a CTRMA spokeswoman said in an email in response to questions from The News.

By 2013, a new state law gave toll operators another tool to penalize those with unpaid toll fees: the power to impound vehicles and block vehicle registrations. The registration blocks are allowed in about a dozen states, but lawmakers in states like Oklahoma want to stop them, according to news reports.

To help them more effectively pursue offenders, NTTA and the state’s two other public toll operators for nearly two decades also have relied on help from debt collection attorneys and hired high-profile law firms to represent them. NTTA also does this work for others. Private tollway operators pay NTTA to pursue drivers with unpaid toll bills in North Texas justice of the peace courts.

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From 2018 to 2023, HCTRA paid $30 million in collection attorney fees in addition to $20 million to Austin law firm Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson to pursue other remedies such as registration blocks and driver’s license suspensions on toll evaders, according to records The News obtained from the Houston-area toll operator under the Texas Public Information Act.

From May 2022 to May 2023, NTTA sent nearly 172,000 scofflaw requests to Texas DPS for habitual violator statuses. The designation, which applies to a driver who has accumulated 100 or more unpaid tolls within 12 months, triggers vehicle registration blocks in Dallas, Denton, Tarrant and Collin counties. From July 2022 to July 2023, NTTA collected $153 million in toll enforcement remedies, records show.

In total, based on those figures, North Texas counties have lost more than $10.3 million in registration fees that their city leaders cannot collect because of vehicle blocks by toll operators, based on the average cost to register each vehicle, which is $60 in Texas.

Collin County Tax Assessor Kenneth Maun told The News he refused to enforce the blocks toll operators like NTTA requested for more than a decade.

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“I would find them tremendously out of date, items being billed to taxpayers who didn’t know it,” he said. “The car had already been sold one or two times. And, they (NTTA) didn’t clean anything up.”

“I wasn’t going to touch them (NTTA) because I thought they were doing a horrible job, that was for the counties, for the taxpayers, for everybody,” he said.

He finally relented around 2017, he said, when county commissioners included in the county budget three additional full-time positions to help with the workload. But years later, he said not much has changed. Billing errors for NTTA customers still exist, he said.

“I don’t respect their administrative abilities,” Maun said.

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The chaos and confusion

Many of the concerns Maun described impact drivers in courts across North Texas every day, The News’ investigation revealed.

In a Frisco courtroom in February, Justice of Peace James DePiazza prepared to issue arrest warrants for people who had failed to respond to his court notices for unpaid toll fees.

He looked up at rows of empty seats. Four of the five people sitting there that morning said they had addressed their citations with NTTA. They wondered why they still received court notices.

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DePiazza, who serves in Precinct 2 in Denton County, told The News much of his job is spent explaining to the public how the system works. On that day, he shared from his bench that even if a driver contacts NTTA to address unpaid tolls, they must still enter a plea to address the criminal side of the infraction with the court.

DePiazza scheduled two pretrial hearings for people who pleaded not guilty with the Denton County district attorney’s office in his court that day. One hearing was for a man who told DePiazza the NTTA had dismissed his charges in a bankruptcy he filed in 2021. Another hearing was for a man who said he had sold his car before the citation occurred. DePiazza told the man he needed to file a vehicle transfer notification within 30 days of the sale in order to clear the court citation.

“NTTA can come back and charge you for those tolls” if the buyer doesn’t register the vehicle or he does not file the transfer notice within 30 days of the sale, DePiazza told him.

Then, DePiazza heard his final case that day — and quickly dismissed it.

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Seventy-six-year-old grandmother Andrea Peralta of Lewisville had loaned her car to her grandson, she said. She was on a breathing machine because she caught COVID-19 in 2021 and it damaged her lungs, she said, so she needed to get back home as soon as possible.

“He took off and I guess left me holding the bag,” she said about her grandson.

DePiazza waived court fines after Peralta showed him she was on Social Security. Peralta said she wasn’t sure how much she owed NTTA, but she sold her car for $300 more than a year ago because she couldn’t afford to fix it.

She couldn’t remember the exact date, though.

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“It’s been a while,” she said.

Jeff Beltz, an attorney who defends people who have tollway tickets, waits for a hearing...
Jeff Beltz, an attorney who defends people who have tollway tickets, waits for a hearing last summer outside the East Dallas Government Center.(Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)

Jeffrey Beltz, an attorney who represents people at court hearings over unpaid toll fines, said too often, NTTA representatives do not provide enough evidence to prove a driver is guilty.

The News met Beltz last summer as he waited alone one day in Justice of Peace Sara Martinez’s Dallas court. NTTA representatives were supposed to attend the court hearing to prove his client’s toll violation, but the court postponed the hearing. Beltz’s client was on the hook for $380.01 in unpaid tolls in addition to $525 in administrative fees from NTTA, according to a court citation record he shared with The News.

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His client’s paperwork included the information that noted the total amount of unpaid tolls owed, but not a breakdown of each tollway violation his client allegedly had incurred. There was no way his client could verify the charges, he said. The documents also did not include snapshots from NTTA of the license plate involved in the toll violations.

“If you’re filing a criminal case, how in the world can you sit there with a straight face and say this is enough evidence?” Beltz said. “These are criminal cases and they require the highest burden of proof in the land.”

NTTA also has not responded to requests he has made for hearings to contest blocks on car registrations, Beltz said.

NTTA told The News only two drivers have ever set a hearing to contest a registration block and in each of those cases, the court affirmed the block.

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What’s more, NTTA simply follows the law, St. Pierre said.

“If your car is used in the commission of a crime, it’s your car,” she said. “There is a degree of responsibility that comes with owning a vehicle whether it’s paying tolls or making the car payment or keeping it insured.”

A closer look

Between 2013 and 2023, roughly 146,000 of the 160,000 court tickets sent out for violations across the state for unpaid toll violations were concentrated in Tarrant, Dallas, Denton and Collin counties, where NTTA operates, according to data The News reviewed from DPS.

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The News called and emailed the state’s three largest toll road operators, HCTRA, CTRMA and NTTA.

Only NTTA agreed to an interview.

When presented with The News’ findings about the actions it takes to punish violators, NTTA officials said it operates fairly.

If a driver is concerned about affordability, there are alternative routes that might better fit their budget, St. Pierre said.

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“We’re being asked, ‘Why aren’t you being fair to them?’ when my first question is, ‘Well they used the toll roads, why would they not pay for what they got?’ ”

At the end of the day, St. Pierre said, “We just want what’s owed for using the road.”

Dee Davis, a single mother in Fort Worth, is one of thousands of North Texas motorists who...
Dee Davis, a single mother in Fort Worth, is one of thousands of North Texas motorists who face mounting bills for unpaid tolls. Texas is one of only a handful of states that criminalizes tollway drivers for unpaid fees.(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

Dee Davis, the Fort Worth single mom, was hoping a phone call to NTTA to explain her situation would resolve her $17,200 toll bill. But their answer surprised her. She was told that the only payment plan they would accept was at least $300 a month.

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Several years ago, her ex-boyfriend used to borrow her car, often driving it on toll roads to get to work. She had never driven on toll roads. She guesses that he must have hidden the tollway citations from her, or maybe they had been sent to an old address where they lived before their breakup.

This year, she said she’s already been stopped by police five times on her way home from work for an expired registration sticker. NTTA blocked her from renewing her car registration because she is a habitual violator. The status gives NTTA the authority to suspend drivers’ licenses, bar those drivers from using their tollways and impound their cars.

Many habitual violators are everyday Texans working to make ends meet, two judges said in interviews with The News. They are hair stylists, bartenders, deployed military, single parents and grandmothers. They are small business owners and construction workers. Some mistakenly get on a tollway and don’t realize how quickly the fees add up, judges said. One hundred charges can happen in a few weeks for a driver who passes several stations on a toll road to get to work and back every day.

Morris Shepard had a toll tag on his car. For years, money was automatically withdrawn from his bank account to pay for his drives on toll roads. But when his bank account was frozen to protect him after Amazon found potentially fraudulent activity, his bank declined his toll payments. The Shepards said they never received notice from NTTA that toll payments could not be withdrawn.

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They visited an NTTA office in Plano in February after receiving a letter from Denton County Justice of the Peace Precinct 2 that said Morris Shepard could be arrested for unpaid tolls. They said they were surprised after they explained their situation that NTTA still told them they had to go to court.

Because he’s a disabled military veteran, Morris Shepard is eligible to drive for free on some Texas toll roads under qualifying discount programs accepted by TxDOT and Austin’s regional mobility authority. NTTA only waives tolls for Legion of Valor members under a program that is subsidized by an anonymous third-party sponsor.

In court that February morning, the judge set Morris Shepard’s next hearing for 9 a.m. on April 11, when he and his wife said they would have in hand documented proof of the fraudulent activity on their bank account.

But the case did not end that day. And it didn’t matter that he had documents to show that he had not intentionally tried to avoid paying tolls.

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At the April 11 hearing, an assistant district attorney with Denton County told Shepard he must still pay the toll fees he owes NTTA.

Shepard also learned he would receive an email with a Zoom link for an upcoming meeting to work out a payment plan with NTTA representatives. After that, he needed to bring to the court documented proof of his agreement with NTTA and pay $81 in court costs. Shepard’s ticket for unpaid tolls would be removed from his record if he did not receive another citation in the next 90 days.

In the hallway after the April hearing, Shepard said he was glad his court fees and fines were reduced. He could have been ordered to pay as much as $331 but the Precinct 2 court reduces fines to incentivize people to clear their citations.

His wife was still upset that despite their proof and talk with NTTA, they still had to go to court and pay toll penalties.

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“You get the runaround,” LaTasha Shepard said. “You had to go there first, and then you’ve got to come back here. You’ve got to do all this stuff.”

“This is a redundant process,” she said.

Part 3: As Texas prepares for more growth, lawmakers may soon look for ways to lessen the burden of tolls. In North Texas, one judge slashes fines to “help people take care of their business.” Penalties don’t have to be extreme, he says. Meanwhile, some states offer rebates and discounts to low-income families and frequent users.