The Harris County Toll Road Authority has lost more than $3 million in the three years it has permitted its EZ Tag holders to use their passes to pay for airport parking, a Chronicle analysis has found.

The losses prompted Commissioners Court to shut down the program three weeks ago at the authority’s recommendation.

The court’s action does not take effect for six months from its Jan. 12 vote. At its current monthly loss rate, the program will lose nearly $500,000 more as it sunsets.

By canceling the program more than two years early, the authority is giving up on about $2 million it expected to collect to pay off the equipment for reading the EZ Tags of vehicles exiting the parking garages at Bush and Hobby airports.

Although it had expected to recoup the entire $4.1 million cost of the system through gate receipts, authority officials do not view giving up on $2 million in future collections as a total loss. The system will be redeployed elsewhere on its toll road network, saving on replacement costs for worn-out equipment, officials said.

“It is foolish to spend a dollar to collect 50 cents,” Peter Key, deputy director of the authority, said in a statement. “Ending the airport EZ Tag Program is the right thing to do. It is not easy to acknowledge that a program does not meet revenue expectations, but it would be irresponsible for this agency to continue to expend public funds on a program where revenue consistently does not meet expenditures.”

No tax money

The authority does not receive tax money. Its entire budget comes from the fares collected from motorists using its 107 miles of freeway that ring Houston. Those fees pay for new tollway construction, ongoing maintenance, as well as generate $120 million a year for the county’s four precincts for road projects.

HCTRA officials acknowledged the authority was losing about $80,000 a month to run the airport parking program when it sent the recommendation to Commissioners Court last month.

The monthly losses were much larger when the program launched in April 2007, according to revenue figures obtained through a public records request. In its first 33 months of operation, the EZ Tag airport parking program lost about $3.2 million.

“Obviously, the planners at the time believed there would be adequate usage to sustain the program, but our actual experience has shown differently,” said LaWanda Howse, the authority’s manager for special projects.

80,000 out of 1.7 million

There are 1.7 million EZ Tag holders. Spokesman Eric Hanson said the authority projected about 35 percent of those would use the tags at the airports.

Instead, about 80,000 motorists used it at least once in the last year, a little under 5 percent.

Hanson said the authority came up with its projection after sending crews to the airport garages to see how many vehicles there had EZ Tags.

Other authorities have had more success with airport parking arrangements.

The North Texas Tollway Authority’s TollTags have been in use at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport since 2004 and at Love Field Airport since 2007. A spokeswoman said 460,000 customers used TollTags at the airports in 2008.

Orlando International Airport parking garages have accepted the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority’s E-PASS since 2005.

In both Orlando and Dallas, the airports paid for installation and operation of the equipment that reads the passes. Under its agreement with the city of Houston, which runs the airports, the Toll Road Authority picked up the tab for the EZ Tag system at the garages.

Hanson also noted that the city-run garages where EZ Tags can be used are not the only, or the cheapest, places to park at the airports.

The chief operating cost of the program was bank fees. Amegy Bank was charging the authority $70,000 a month in bank fees for airport transactions because each EZ Tag passing through a garage gate resulted in a charge for using the credit card linked to the motorist’s EZ Tag account. The authority, not the motorists, pays those charges.


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