No More Free Ride? EZ Tag Changes in the Works

Employees of the Harris County Toll Road Authority could soon have to pay to use local toll raods thanks to a new EZ Tag policy that could be approved next week. As Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports, Harris County commissioners are trying to tighten-up who gets a free ride.

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While the majority of commuters who use toll roads in Harris County pay about $40 a month for their EZ-Tags, about 500 employees of the Toll Road Authority have what are known as non-revenue EZ Tags that allow them to use the roads for free. Soon, that benefit could be gone if commissioners approve a new policy that would take those EZ-Tags away. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett says there are about 5000 non-revenue EZ-Tags in use, a list that has grown over the years.

"We all got the list and we looked at and you would find somebody who would get on at 1960 on the Hardy and come to work everyday. Well, now, should that person have had a toll EZ-Tag? Probably not and under this policy they won't."

Commissioners last week postponed a vote on the new policy in order to iron out last minute details on exactly who gets to keep their free EZ-Tags and how they'll be used in the future. State law allows the non-revenue EZ-Tags on marked county vehicles, law enforcement and fire vehicles and for use in military convoys.

"I want to be sure that we take these tags away, that there aren't free EZ-Tags for people who don't deserve them, but that we have a way to monitor and enforce. It doesn't do us any good to have a policy if we can't enforce it."

Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia pays for an EZ-Tag on her personal vehicle and sent the free one she was given back to the Toll Road Authority. She says County employees who already get a car allowance should not get a free pass on the toll roads.

"I don't think anyone with a take-home car should be allowed to have one because you open it up for abuse. I want county marked vehicles used strictly for county purposes. Which is like our equipment on our vehicles in our precinct. They're strictly on county-marked vehicles for county purposes."

The Toll Road Authority is in the process of asking all county agencies to confirm they need the free EZ-Tags they've been issued and if so, why they need them. Harris County Department of Public Infrastructure Executive Director Art Storey says the change in policy is not about revenue.

"It's not a cost matter. It's a matter of government going out of its way to avoid any appearance of impropriety no matter how well-justified. If it looks like a special privilege for a government employee its best not to do it in these days of public scrutiny and public suspicion of government."

Commissioners will likely vote on the policy changes next Tuesday.

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