Erroneous Toll Bills Fuel Criticism at TxDOT Hearing
From the Texas Tribune:
Approximately 30,000 Texas drivers with valid TxTag accounts erroneously received bills in the mail for using the state’s toll roads, officials with the Texas Department of Transportation and Xerox told state senators Wednesday during a tense hearing.
“I thought it was going to be a large number, but I didn’t think it would be so large,” state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said a a Senate Transportation Committee hearing. TxDOT officials said they plan to refund all of the people who were erroneously charged, but they acknowledged there could be others who might not know they were incorrectly charged.
It is just the latest in a string of problems that have emerged with the state’s TxTag system since Xerox signed a five-year, $100 million contract last year to take over TxDOT’s tolling operations, including its call centers. On Wednesday, the Senate Transportation Committee called both TxDOT and Xerox officials to discuss the problems, which include confusing bills and difficulties reaching representatives on its customer service line.
TxDOT officials have said the problems are largely tied to the transition of an enormous amount of data from the old tolling system — which involved five vendors and often created multiple accounts for a single driver — to Xerox's system, which is designed to ensure that each driver is tracked in a single account.
The majority of the problems have been in the Austin region, the location of most of the toll roads that TxDOT directly oversees. Toll roads in Dallas and Houston are handled by local entities.
Two senators — Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, and Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston —told TxDOT officials that they have been hit with confusing or erroneous toll charges by TxDOT in recent months.
“My first encounter was to receive a bill several months after” using the toll road, Hall said. “The toll charge was 65 cents. The late fees and others ran it to almost $30.”
Watson said he’s gotten an earful from constituents about their troubles with getting assistance with incorrect or confusing toll bills.
"I Doubt Your Numbers"
Xerox vice president Laurie Zavadil said the company had recently beefed up staffing at its Texas call centers. Callers were currently seeing average wait times of 2 minutes and 27 seconds to speak to a customer service representative, she said. Watson said he knew someone who called the customer service line recently. A representative answered fairly quickly but then proceeded to put the caller on hold for another 14 minutes.
“I doubt your numbers,” Watson told Zavadil.
Zavadil said that the average time for calls to be completely handled is about eight minutes, which she attributed partly to ongoing confusion about the bills related to the transition. Sometimes, customers are put on hold because the representative needs to find a superior to help address a confusing issue.
“The call handle time we are looking to improve,” Zavadil said. “We know there are confusion among the customers with their bills.”
Watson also said TxDOT’s TxTag site is still having troubles.
“I’ve had complaints of people that want to give you money but can’t give you money,” Watson said to TxDOT officials.
Another concern — that many drivers had received bills for old trips — was because 3.5 million older transactions going back as far as 2012 got “stalled in the previous system,” TxDOT chief financial officer James Bass said. He stressed that a single trip could easily involve as many as 10 toll transactions.
The drivers connected to those transactions were originally mailed a bill but never paid, Bass said. A follow-up bill didn’t get sent until much later, due in part to the last year’s migration to Xerox’s system. That delay has led to the confusion, Bass said. TxDOT officials vowed to waive any late fees related to those stalled transactions.
State Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, told TxDOT officials that he couldn’t understand why the agency bothered to send out bills for such old transactions.
“No business would expect someone to pay an invoice that’s two years old when they haven’t seen it,” Hancock said. Bass stressed that the drivers had actually been billed once but had experienced an unusually long lag time before receiving a follow-up bill.
TxDOT has already fined Xerox $177,000 in damages related to missing key milestones in the contract. More fines could come if the company’s performance does not improve, TxDOT Executive Director Joe Weber said. But he also defended the company’s work, saying that many of the problems were tied to the system Xerox was hired to replace.
“I would say it’s because of the data that was in that database when Xerox took over,” Weber said after the hearing. “I don’t think they realized, nor did we, the extent to some of those damaged files and what it was going to take, the amount of mail-outs it was going to take, to try to establish communications with people to solve them.”
Weber declined to say if he was holding the company that previously handled the agency’s tolling data operations, FSTech, responsible for the current problems. In 2012, TxDOT canceled its three-year contract with the company after less than a year.
“I’m not going to speculate on that but there’s a reason you change vendors or go to someone else and it’s usually because you’re seeking a better product,” Weber said.
Senate Finance Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, ordered TxDOT to send all of the senators on the committee weekly reports about how the tolling system is operating until it is working at the level TxDOT officials consider optimal.
Some senators at the hearings said the ongoing problems with the Xerox contract had them questioning TxDOT’s approach to tolling. Hall asked TxDOT to find out how much it would cost for the agency to handle the toll billing system in-house. State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, said she found it hard to believe TxDOT didn’t lose money on tolls if the agency has to send multiple bills to have them paid.
Weber said he’s heard some people suggest that the state should go back to toll booths, a move that could increase congestion but would probably simplify billing.
“I have shared internally with my staff that if I don’t see a significant turnaround in the next three months, we need to see if this is the right process to collect tolls on our tollways,” Weber said.
Asked afterward if Weber was seriously considering undoing the state’s pay-by-mail system for toll roads, TxDOT spokesman Bob Kaufman said, “I think we’ll have to take a look at how we do, and what some of the options are moving forward. I think it’s a little early to speculate.”