Opening certain carpool lanes to toll-paying solo drivers has paid off for Houston transit officials, but it has also left more than $700,000 on the table simply because Metro has no system to collect from drivers who don't pay.
Charged with managing five segments of reversible carpool/toll lanes, Metropolitan Transit Authority officials have spent months trying to develop a collection policy. A company that wants its collection business says the agency could be losing millions of dollars per year, though Metro calculates the loss is far less.
Metro opened the last of its toll segments in July along U.S. 59 north of downtown. That section joined U.S. 59 south of downtown, Interstate 45 north and south of the central business district and U.S. 290 northwest of Loop 610 to form Metro's 83-mile high-occupancy toll lane system -- the longest in the country. Use of the lanes reverses direction based on peak commuter demand -- toward downtown in the morning and away from downtown in the evening.
Since it opened its first HOT lane, the southern Interstate 45 section, to solo drivers in February 2012, the agency has collected $5 million in tolls as of late December, Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said. Metro estimates that its uncollected tolls and fines total $740,000, Gray said.
That's far less than the $109 million in outstanding tolls and fees amassed by the Harris County Toll Road Authority. County toll roads, however, carry higher violation fees and the agency's unpaid amount stretches back more than a decade compared to less than two years for Metro.
Since 2002, the toll road authority has collected $4.5 billion in gross toll revenue, making the outstanding balance about 2 percent of the current take. Metro's unpaid tolls and fees, in contrast, equal 14.8 percent of its collections.
Neither agency can say exactly how many people have not paid, because most of their analysis is based on their finances, not every transaction issued by the private contractor that oversees the toll operations. Toll prices also vary depending on time of day, making estimates based on the unpaid revenue questionable.
Metro's number is likely to increase as use of the lanes adjusts to higher toll rates that start Monday during peak periods, and as traffic congestion makes the lanes more attractive to drivers.
County toll road officials, who manage the Hardy, Westpark and Sam Houston tollways and the Katy managed lanes, have far stronger collection enforcement and a longer relationship with county tax officials who can suspend vehicle registrations for motorists who don't pay tolls.
Based on its current rules and procedures, Metro's ability to collect money owed is murky. Though police ticket solo drivers for declaring as a carpool vehicle, or for using the lanes when toll paying drivers aren't allowed, collecting unpaid tolls is different. Police can observe someone driving in the carpool lane by himself or herself and pull them over. Police on the ground don't know when somebody cruises through the gate without paying.
TransCore, the company that manages the toll lane system for Metro, notifies a vehicle's owner after three violations in one year, requesting payment. The amount owed includes an $11 per violation fee, on top of the tolls.
So far, that's about as vigilant as Metro has gotten, with no mechanism to enforce collections. In November, interim CEO Tom Lambert, a former Metro police chief, told a Metro board committee the agency had to "tee up" some solutions to a range of toll road management challenges.
"We clearly have some next steps to do," Lambert said.
Metro officials said they were working to strengthen collections, but were altering other rules and policies related to the lanes first, with a final decision on the collections to come later this year.
Other new rules start Monday, when rates during peak times will rise by as much as $2.25 to reduce single-occupant vehicle use of the lanes in the morning and just before the lanes convert to carpool-only use. The time during which solo drivers must avoid the lanes also increases by 30 minutes along I-45 and U.S. 59, and by 15 minutes along U.S. 290.