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Unlike other states, Texas lags behind in toll discounts

Tollways have boosted Texas’ economic growth and infrastructure, but critics say toll road operators often use aggressive enforcement tactics against drivers.

Inside James DePiazza’s court in Denton County, thousands of North Texans who use the Sam Rayburn Tollway have pleaded for help.

The tollway cuts a diagonal path from Collin County’s high-tech corridor, corporate campuses and expanding suburbs to DFW International Airport and the metro area at large. Its quick access has triggered a deluge of toll-related criminal cases that far exceed civil cases, such as eviction and debt claims, a yearlong investigation by The Dallas Morning News found.

Why This Story Matters
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.

DePiazza’s sizable toll fee caseload illustrates Texas’ unforgiving approach to drivers with unpaid fines. The state has the harshest penalties and consequences for not paying toll fees while being among the U.S. states with the most tollways.

But in DePiazza’s court, since 2010 — after the Sam Rayburn Tollway opened — things have been different. He has regularly slashed toll fines. He also routinely encourages representatives from the North Texas Tollway Authority — which oversees five toll roads, two bridges and a tunnel — to explore payment options with the people in his court.

People need to “take care of their business,” he said. But the penalties for unpaid tolls don’t have to be extreme either, he said.


“I want the behavior to change more than I want to be collecting their money,” DePiazza said.

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As toll citations exceed all other disputes in some justice of the peace courts in North Texas, The News’ investigation found, DePiazza’s approach may serve as a model now that some lawmakers want to make toll reform the topic of an interim study they hope to kick off this year.

Signs for the Sam Rayburn Tollway direct drivers entering State Hwy 121 in Lewisville,...
Signs for the Sam Rayburn Tollway direct drivers entering State Hwy 121 in Lewisville, Texas, May 10, 2024.(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

Early this year, state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, urged Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, to appoint a committee of lawmakers to explore options for relieving the burden of tolls on thousands of Texans.

The News’ investigation into tolls found the state’s concentration of paid roads has a significant impact on about 1.4 million people in North Texas because they live in areas where tollways are within a one-mile radius of their homes and their free road options — often several miles away from their homes — are among the most congested in the state.


Many of the nation’s tollways operate in a handful of states — Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois and California. Yet each of those states — except Texas — has enacted meaningful discount programs and exemptions on toll fees.

Texas waives toll fees for disabled veterans on turnpikes that are maintained and operated by the Texas Department of Transportation, according to a TxDOT spokesman.

Public tollway providers, including the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority near Austin and the Fort Bend Tollway Authority in the Houston area, provide discounts to eligible veterans who have qualifying license plates and are registered, according to their websites. In addition, CTRMA has a “one-time courtesy waiver” for drivers who traveled a toll road in error or missed a bill due date. “This courtesy is only extended once,” spokeswoman Jori Lui said in response to questions from The News.

Denton County Justice of the Peace encourages toll road users to deal with their unpaid bills
Precinct 2's James DePiazza talks about the possibility of warrants being issued for drivers who ignore the court's obligation.

In early September 2023, the Harris County Toll Road Authority began offering a 10% discount for drivers, according to news reports, after the program was approved by Harris County commissioners in January 2023. The discount marked the first time in 40 years that HCTRA dropped costs for drivers, according to news reports. The discount only applies to drivers with an EZ Tag issued by HCTRA, not those with TxTags or those issued by the North Texas Tollway Authority. HCTRA spokeswoman Roxana Sibrian never responded to The News’ questions after months of phone calls and emails.

One of the few discounts North Texas drivers can take advantage of is for those who have registered high-occupancy vehicles and motorcycles. These drivers receive a 50% discount during peak periods to drive on the TEXpress lanes in Dallas, Denton and Tarrant counties, according to the TEXpress website.

This means that the vast majority of the over 12 million toll users across the state and 6.7 million in North Texas aren’t eligible for any cost-saving programs, including lower-income families, commuters or elderly residents, The News’ investigation uncovered.

Two of the other large public tollway operators told The News they are not able to offer additional discounts because they are still in debt from building the roads. Combined, NTTA and CTRMA owe more than $12 billion to investors, financial records show.

Showing an aggressive pursuit of fees and penalties is a way to persuade a credit rating agency, such as Moody’s or Standard & Poor’s, to assign that toll operator a good credit rating, said Michael Maloney, a trial attorney in Manhattan who represents investors in securities fraud cases.

That is why collecting money on every vehicle using these roads is important, said Nancy St. Pierre, NTTA spokeswoman.

If a driver decides to jump on a toll road, they are essentially agreeing to pay for the use of the road, St. Pierre said.


“I don’t know that equity necessarily plays a role in our total system simply because people don’t have to use our roads,” she said.

Toll relief trends

While Texas offers few discounts for toll drivers, several other states over the past few years have adopted creative ways to provide relief, The News’ examination found. In most cases, the goal is to lighten the financial burden on working families. In other cases, the effort is concentrated on improving access to mobility for drivers in low-income areas.

A Harvard University study on upward mobility found that commuting time is the single strongest factor in the likelihood of escaping poverty. The longer it takes to commute in a certain county, the less likely it is that low-income families are able to improve their financial status, the study found.


Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has supported toll discounts since they were introduced in summer 2022. Under the program to benefit motorists who frequently use toll roads, Florida drivers who use transponders and have 35 or more qualifying toll transactions per month receive a 50% credit to their accounts. In 2023, the program was expected to benefit about 1.2 million drivers and save the average commuter nearly $400, according to DeSantis’ office. Florida lawmakers voted to extend the program in March 2024.

Andrea Peralta of Lewisville appears before Denton County Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace...
Andrea Peralta of Lewisville appears before Denton County Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace James DePiazza in order to avoid having a warrant issued for her arrest for toll tickets. (Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

In 2020, Illinois launched a tolling reform and relief package that featured a significant reduction for those with unpaid tolls. It also advanced amnesty and fine reductions for all tollway customers with outstanding fees. In 2022, it expanded its I-PASS Assist program that includes additional fee dismissals for low-wage working families. Drivers who participate in the program are offered a free deposit on transponders, a waiver of invoice fees and gift cards. The goal is to improve the disparate impact fines and fees have on working families, according to the website for the Illinois Tollway. More than 36,000 people are signed up for the program, which includes saving 50% on tolls, according to spokesman Daniel Rozek.

In July 2023, California introduced two programs to help Bay Area drivers who have accumulated overdue tolls and violation penalties. The first program is a one-time waiver of penalties — available to all drivers regardless of their income — for unpaid toll fines. A second program, the Bay Area Toll Payment Plan, helps low-income households in the San Francisco Bay Area with toll-related debt over $100 pay off overdue bills, penalties or fees over 24 months.


New Jersey and New York thruway and port authorities have established independent tollway payer advocacy offices to investigate complaints from drivers. The offices study the trends and information derived from their investigations to recommend improvements and policy changes in cashless tolling practices. According to the toll payer advocacy program of the New York State Thruway Authority, the office aims to ensure all toll payers receive “fair and responsive treatment” and to “identify and resolve problems and recommend improvements to customer service.”

In March, lawmakers in Texas’ neighboring state of Louisiana introduced a bill to prohibit the operator of a toll facility from impacting the status of a person’s driver’s license for failure to pay tolls under certain circumstances. By contrast, thousands of Texas drivers who fail to respond to court notices get their driver’s licenses suspended, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Access to mobility

The News’ investigation also found the concentration of toll roads in North Texas disproportionately affects those in predominantly moderate- to low-income neighborhoods where the median household income of about $55,000 is less than the state median of $73,035 a year, according to the 2022 American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau.


Additionally, a disproportionate number of people who have been cited by Texas courts for failure to pay tolls are Black, the investigation revealed. The News analyzed 160,000 court citations and data obtained from Texas DPS under the Texas Public Information Act. The information, which included the names, races and addresses of defendants, spanned 10 years’ worth of toll tickets primarily in North Texas and were provided by municipal and justice of the peace courts under a voluntary reporting program.

The Harvard mobility study made a direct link between efficient transportation and opportunities for higher-paying jobs. A lack of transportation limits such opportunities, it said.

Video: Fort Worth lawmaker opposes private toll roads in North Texas
State Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, a member of the House Transportation Committee, explains why he is opposed to private toll roads in North Texas.

It’s simple, said Amy Thomson, transportation policy and programs manager for TransForm, an Oakland-based advocacy group that focuses on transportation options and housing policy across California.


The goal of most effective relief programs is to make mobility more accessible to different types of people, she said.

Workers who have to haul construction equipment in larger vehicles will need larger discounts to afford to drive on toll roads, she said.

Drivers who live in places surrounded by tolls with few free road options, as well as drivers who need to drive on toll roads on a regular basis, likely need some relief, and so do people of color and low-income people — who have been typically left out of the planning process for years, she said.

“There needs to be public engagement in order to identify what road pricing structures are available to them so these people don’t lose mobility,” she said.


‘Not justifiable’

During the pandemic, when many communities suffered economically from job losses, North Texas courts saw a spike in toll-related citations, records obtained by The News show. For example, in 2020, Collin County reported 5,441 arrest warrants — up from 3,113 warrants in 2019.

As of January, Denton County had 4,925 arrest warrants on 5,503 active cases of unpaid tolls, records showed.

In recent years, fewer warrants have been issued. From January 2021 to April 2024, Collin County had 1,375 arrest warrants, documents provided by the court to The News showed.


In 2019, when he was first elected, Dallas Justice of the Peace Michael Jones said he signed many arrest warrants for people who violated tolls. “It’s the law,” he said.

In recent months, he signed only four, he said. More people are paying their toll tickets, he said.

The LBJ TEXpress Lanes (center) run alongside I-635 near Coit Rd in Dallas’ High Five...
The LBJ TEXpress Lanes (center) run alongside I-635 near Coit Rd in Dallas’ High Five interchange, February 8, 2024.(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

The court for Tarrant County Justice of the Peace Precinct 5 handles toll violations that occur on the Chisolm Trail Parkway, a 27-mile toll road that connects Fort Worth to Cleburne.


For this reason, Justice of the Peace Sergio De Leon said he is mindful that many of the people in his court for unpaid toll fees face tough economic times.

In 2013, De Leon said it was rare that his court dealt with unpaid toll violations. A decade later, his court manages thousands of cases for people who have been sued for toll violations. One of his storage rooms is stacked to the ceiling with boxes of active unpaid toll fine cases.

Those who do not enter a plea with his court will have their driver’s license suspended within 60 to 90 days, he said.

Since the pandemic, De Leon said he has tried to speed up the process for anyone who wants to clear their tickets. Defendants have the option to call the court or contact De Leon by email, he said.


It can be time-consuming, though, for his office. “My overtime budget is through the roof,” he said.

For the fiscal year from Oct. 1, 2023, to Oct. 1, 2024, Tarrant County commissioners approved a budget for his court that includes $50,000 in overtime, of which at least 80% will cover salaries for clerks to process tollway citations, De Leon said.

When dealing with the public, De Leon’s motto is “use common sense and take a humble approach that anyone can understand regardless of their circumstances in life.”

He said he would support legislative action to help lift the economic burden of tolls on motorists.


In the meantime, DeLeon said he won’t issue arrest warrants.


“It’s not justifiable,” he said.