As El Paso prepares to open new toll roads, officials' inability to mail bills to Mexican drivers means only U.S. drivers will be required to pay.
But the head of the local tolling authority says the issue hasn’t resulted in significant lost revenue for existing toll roads. Vehicles with Mexican license plates that the agency can't bill have made up roughly one percent of the traffic on El Paso's only two toll lanes since they opened in January 2014.
“The numbers for Mexican users are so low that it’s really not a problem,” said Raymond Telles, who heads the Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority. “The number of Mexican plates using the roadway are significantly smaller than we thought."
But as the number of tolled roads in the U.S.-Mexico border city increases —and more foreign drivers learn they can use them for free — state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, said he anticipates an jump in the number of drivers from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, using the tolled lanes.
“If more and more people with foreign license plates figure out there’s no way for us to enforce it, then I think you will see more people from Juárez using it,” said Pickett, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation. “It will be a matter of time before people figure out if you’ve got a foreign license plate, you’re not going to get a bill.”
The first two tolled lanes in El Paso were added last year along a nine-mile, four-lane stretch of Loop 375 along the border. Before they opened, several local politicians, including Pickett and former El Paso Mayor John Cook, opposed the tolls because they would be enforceable only for U.S. drivers.
Like many other tolled roads in Texas, they have no toll booths. Drivers who use the lanes must have an electronic toll tag or their license plate is photographed and the driver mailed a bill.
The local mobility authority, which oversees pay-by-mail tolling, can't send bills to drivers with Mexican license plates because it doesn't have access to addresses associated with them. Mexican drivers are not charged unless they have a toll tag, Telles said.
Some Mexican drivers have purchased tags to pay Texas tolls electronically, but it's tough to know how many because three separate agencies oversee electronic tolling. More than 5,300 cars with Mexican license plates are registered with Texas Department of Transportation toll tag accounts. The North Texas Tollway Authority has about 40 electronic payment accounts associated with Mexican addresses, although spokesman Michael Rey said he couldn’t say how many cars are associated with those accounts. The Harris County Toll Road Authority doesn’t allow users to register cars with foreign license plates.
Construction is already underway on another tolled highway in El Paso — the Border West Expressway, a more than $600 million project that aims to better connect the east and west sides of the city, Telles said. TxDOT and the local mobility authority plan to build two more tolled roads in El Paso: an additional highway near the border and another route in the north of the city.
If the agency’s inability to bill Mexican drivers becomes a larger problem, Telles said, the mobility authority could partner with the El Paso Police Department to use automated license plate readers to catch cars that frequently drive on the roads without paying.
However, he said, such enforcement methods are too costly to justify with lost revenue from foreign drivers so low.
El Paso isn’t the only border community running into this issue. In the Rio Grande Valley, Mexican drivers without toll tags make up only a small part of the traffic on the tolled State Highway 550, but the Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority isn’t able to bill them, either.
“At the moment we don’t have the possibility to send bills to Mexican addresses,” said Michelle Lopez, a spokeswoman for the tolling authority for the southernmost part of the state. “It is an ongoing issue.”