Automation gone mad

by Les


The EZ-TAG with a nice reflection of an ash tree as background

The Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) came into being in 1983 when the Houston area desperately needed  new roads and had no money to build them. The Harris County Commissioners’ Court–the governing body for the county–asked for money from the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), but they had no spare money in the general budget; the Commissioners tried to interest the Texas Turnpike Authority (a TxDOT division) without success. So they held a referendum to create two toll roads, financed by selling $900 million of bonds.

The first toll road to be opened was part of the  Sam Houston Tollway in 1982. This has grown to be a toll road completely encircling the inner part of the Houston area, at a distance of eleven to fifteen miles from Downtown. The second toll road built was the Hardy Toll Road, in 1988, paralleling Interstate 45 north from Interstate 610 for about twenty-two miles, with a four mile spur to Houston Intercontinental Airport.

In about 1990 HCTRA introduced the EZ TAG, a RFID transponder attached to a vehicle allowing a toll to be charged to the owner’s account without the driver having to stop or even (eventually) slow down. This saved the user time (which is the whole point of toll roads). What’s more, much to the delight of toll road managers, it saves operating costs by allowing the whole system to be automated. No more toll collectors, no more counting coins, no more maintaining complicated coin reading machines, no replacing gate arms that some drivers just drove through.

But how do you catch the drivers who drive through without an EZ TAG? The solution initially was to have a light that came on to tell the driver to contact the EZ TAG Store, later replaced by just a red light that flashed when a vehicle was detected  but no EZ TAG was. These were backed up by police cars lying in wait on a random basis to give violators a significant chance of being caught.

Then flood lights were added to all the EZ TAG readers, together with cameras feeding data to license tag recognition software.

By 2004 the HCTRA had enough confidence in the system to open the Westpark tollway with an EZ TAG the only possible way of paying a toll.

The beauty of it (from the HCTRA point of view) was that now the whole process could be automated. As I understand it, this is how it works: a vehicle goes past an EZ TAG reader and an EZ TAG is detected:

  • The toll is deducted from the EZ TAG account linked to the TAG.
  • The bank account or credit card linked to the EZ TAG is debited an agreed preset amount (typically $40) if the account drops below about $5.

If no EZ TAG is detected:

  • The photo of the rear license tag on the vehicle is put through the automated tag reader.
  • The license tag is checked against the EZ TAG database: if it is found there, the toll is deducted from the account.

At this point, the computer assumes there has been a violation if the account drops below $0, or if no EZ TAG was detected and the license tag is not in the database.

  • The name and address of the registered owner is extracted from the TxDMV database (or other state database) if the license tag is not in the EZ TAG database.
  • A Violation Notice demanding payment of the toll, together with an administrative fee of about 2000% of a typical toll, within seven days, is mailed to the registered owner.
  • If the payment is not received within the time limit (and note that cash is not a permissible form of payment), the violation is turned over to a law firm (Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson LLC) and an additional $500 fee is added to the bill.

All this is completely automated with no human intervention. But several things could go wrong:

  • License tag recognition is not perfect. In particular, it does not seem to do well in identifying which state a tag is from. No cross-checking of license tag against vehicle make, model or even body style or color is done.
  • The license tag could be stolen.
  • The  license tag on the vehicle might have been changed. This is probably the most common problem: Texas insists on vehicle owners getting new license tags at seven year intervals, and with the average age of cars on the road now over eleven years there must be a lot of people keep their cars more than seven years. While the HCTRA EZ TAG Agreement requires the user to notify  HCTRA of a license tag change, not many people remember the fine print of an agreement signed seven years ago, and the text of the agreement is not easy to find on the HCTRA website.
  • The credit card linked to the EZ TAG account could have been compromised and withdrawn by the financial institution, and the violation occurred before the owner was notified.

Harris County Toll Road Authority could take some steps at minimal cost to implement and essentially no cost for ongoing operations (except for reducing the income for totally disproportionate “administrative fees” and profits of the lawyers, who just coincidentally are heavy contributors to political office holders in Texas), and so make a lot of customers happy and reduce the number of times the Authority appears on or on the nightly news:

  1. Check at least the vehicle type and color, and preferably the make and model, of a vehicle before relying on license tag identification.
  2. Remove the requirement for notifying HCTRA of a license tag change. If the license tag identification was used to validate the vehicle against an EZ TAG perhaps 1% of the times it went though a tag reader, HCTRA would immediately know something had changed: either the EZ TAG had been moved to another vehicle, or the license tag for the vehicle had changed. A check on TxDMV database for both the old and the new license tags should give the VIN for both tags. If it is the same, obviously and irrefutably the only change has been the license tag, so the EZ TAG database can be updated automatically. This would save the amount of employee time spent dealing with irate customers.
  3. If, for some unfathomable reason, the above suggestion cannot be implemented, surely arrangement could be made with the Harris County Tax Office to include a reminder to update EZ TAG information with each set of replacement license tags they issue. Or, better, send a notice to HCTRA that the  license tag on the vehicle has changed. I’m assured by HCTRA, part of  the Public Infrastructure Department of the Harris County government, that they never talk to the Harris County Tax Office,  the department which handles motor vehicle registration, so this may be a pipe dream.
  4. Wouldn’t it be reasonable before sending a violation notice to check whether the owner of the vehicle has an EZ TAG account in good standing, and if so, deduct the toll from that account, then mail the owner a note saying what they have done, and what the owner needs to do?
  5. Another reasonable step would be to send a letter of notification an apparent violation giving options other than PAY OR ELSE! Perhaps they could  include a form giving some of the options I’ve presented here: the license tag has changed, here’s the new one; that credit card was cancelled, here’s the new one; that’s not my vehicle, here’s why.

Overall, it appears that the HCTRA works on the assumption that everything they do is perfect, and every customer is a potential thief. That’s hardly the best policy for any organization that depends on its customers for its income, though it certainly can work in a monopoly situation (such as your local phone or cable company). But HCTRA depends on its customers not just for daily revenue, but also for votes to support bond sales to build new roads.