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Unpaid tolls prevent thousands of Oklahomans from renewing vehicle registrations

The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority has placed hundreds of thousands of holds on vehicle registrations due to unpaid toll charges.
Kyle Phillips
/
For Oklahoma Voice
The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority has placed hundreds of thousands of holds on vehicle registrations due to unpaid toll charges.

Amanda Mayo was making what she thought was a routine visit to a tag agency to renew her husband’s vehicle registration when she discovered the account was locked.

After waiting in line for 30 minutes one day in March, she learned she couldn’t renew the car tag due to more than $100 dollars in unpaid turnpike tolls and fines.

Charges she didn’t even know her family owed.

Mayo is one of hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans who has had a vehicle registration frozen due to unpaid tolls.

State lawmakers have long allowed the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority to place a hold on vehicle registrations in an effort to help collect unpaid tolls, but the number of holds could increase as the agency continues to transition to a cashless tolling system on all turnpikes.

Thousands of holds placed on accounts

In 2022, the Turnpike Authority reports it placed vehicle registration holds on 178,000 accounts. Roughly 91,000 registration holds, or about half, were released that same year.

As of late September, the Turnpike Authority had placed 144,000 registration holds in 2023 and released 95,000 of those.

The Turnpike Authority has limited registration hold data going back further due to the pandemic and accounting practices in which uncollected tolls are written off after a certain period of time, said Turnpike Authority spokesperson Lisa Shearer-Salim.

Mayo, a Norman resident who is part of the anti-turnpike expansion group Pike Off OTA, was able to resolve her situation with a quick phone call to the Turnpike Authority. But the experience left her dissatisfied.

“I don’t think I even realized PlatePay was really even active at this point,” she said. “And I certainly didn’t know that was something that needed to be cleared prior to renewing your tag.”

After adding her husband’s vehicle to her PikePass account, Mayo’s fees were cut down to about $21, which she paid, releasing the hold on her account.

Mayo said her family never received any notice that they owed toll payments and late fees were being assessed. When Mayo called the Turnpike Authority’s customer service hotline, a representative said she couldn’t provide a breakdown of the charges, she said.

“If there was a balance due, there was never a phone call,” she said. “There was never a notification of a balance. It just seemed very wrong. If there’s a debt due, how is anyone supposed to know about it?”

Turnpike Authority switching to PlatePay

The Turnpike Authority is in the process of converting all state toll roads to a cashless tolling system called PlatePay. Toll booths are being removed from turnpikes and drivers without a PikePass are assessed fees through a mailed invoice after PlatePay cameras take a picture of their license plate.

The transition that will be complete next year is a safety measure intended to prevent accidents at toll plazas. PlatePay also is intended to be a convenience for drivers because they don’t have to stop while driving and can pay their bills online, Shearer-Salim said.

Since 1997, the Turnpike Authority has had the ability to place a hold on a driver’s vehicle registration due to unpaid tolls. In 2015, lawmakers updated state law to give the Turnpike Authority the ability to lock a person’s account due to unpaid PlatePay invoices.

“Most people don’t even realize this process exists,” Shearer-Salim said. “It is an easy fix. It’s a phone call and a payment and then you get right back in line (at a tag agency). It’s not something that should disrupt a person on end, but at the same time, we’re required to collect those tolls.”

A driver has 21 days to pay a PlatePay invoice before the agency begins assessing late fees that start at $5. A hold is placed on a person’s vehicle registration and the account is sent to a collections agency once a bill is 121 days overdue.

Before a hold is placed on an account, the Turnpike Authority also sends a notice to the driver via certified mail in addition to previous notices sent to the address registered with Service Oklahoma, Shearer-Salim said.

The Turnpike Authority works with customers to immediately remove the account hold so long as that person agrees to pay the fees on the spot or over time through a payment plan, she said. It’s not uncommon for people to call from a tag agency or Service Oklahoma location, in which case the hold can be removed by the time they get back in line, Shearer-Salim said.

“We’re not here to make people’s lives difficult, but we are required to collect those tolls as much as possible,” she said.

Shearer-Salim said the number of holds varies greatly at any given time.

She said she expects the number of account holds will temporarily increase as the agency implements PlatePay but holds will decrease as more Oklahomans become familiar with the cashless tolling system.

The PlatePay system incentivizes drivers to get a PikePass by offering those customers cheaper toll rates.

Driving on a toll road comes at a cost

Sen. Mary Boren, D-Norman, said the Turnpike Authority’s actions could disproportionately affect Oklahomans living paycheck to paycheck who might be unable to pay the late fees in order to renew their vehicle registration. She said she would like to see late fees capped at $50.

Low-income Oklahomans working multiple jobs also may not have the time to work with the Turnpike Authority to remove the hold and may simply drive around with an expired tag instead. Working residents also don’t have a lot of time to spend at a tag agency or Service Oklahoma sorting out a hold on their account, she said.

“I think it gets them (the Turnpike Authority) their money, but it slows down our workforce,” Boren said.

Rep. Danny Sterling, R-Tecumseh, said he doesn’t know much about how the Turnpike Authority imposes account holds, but the idea behind it is simple.

“If you know you’re going to be driving on a toll road, you know you’re going to be required to pay a toll,” he said. “I think it’s as simple as that.”

Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence.

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