TxDOT taken to legislative woodshed over toll tag billing debacle

The state’s troubled toll collection system had more than 3.5 million toll charges that outside contractors failed to process in a timely fashion — some were more than two years behind — and a variety of other problems that have overwhelmed the system, Texas Department of Transportation officials said Wednesday at a legislative hearing that amounted to a trip to the woodshed.

Aside from that backlog of toll transactions, which hit the system and Texas mailboxes late last year, an additional 30,000 motorists who have TxTag electronic toll tags on their windshields were wrongly billed in the mail.

Calls from thousands of confused or angry drivers overwhelmed the single call center set up in Austin by vendor Xerox Corp., TxDOT and company officials said, leading to lengthy waits for calls to be answered, then callers being placed on hold until representatives could actually begin to help them.

“I’ll begin by apologizing to our customers and the citizens of the state,” John Barton, TxDOT deputy executive director, told the Senate Transportation Committee at a hearing called mainly so senators could get answers about the TxTag problems. “They deserved to be served better. … This must be fixed.”

Getting the TxTag operation caught up and fully capable, Barton said later, should be “worked through in the next six to eight weeks.” If not, TxDOT Executive Director Joe Weber said, “then we need to really evaluate the whole thing.”

Weber at the hearing even raised the unlikely prospect of reinstituting cash toll booths on TxDOT toll roads (three had booths when the roads opened in 2006 and 2007), a practice that the toll road industry has been abandoning over the past decade in favor of all-electronic toll processing systems.

TxDOT’s Central Texas toll roads — Loop 1 (the northern stretch of MoPac Boulevard), Texas 45 North, Texas 130 and Texas 45 Southeast — don’t accept cash for tolls. Instead, drivers either have toll tags that are backed by credit cards or cash deposits, or they receive a bill based on a photograph taken of the vehicle’s license plate.

Barton gave the senators a blanket promise that late charges and fees associated with the delayed bills and other mistakes would be dismissed by TxDOT. Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, the committee chairman, instructed TxDOT to give the committee weekly reports on the situation for the foreseeable future.

Officials said that Xerox in recent weeks has added call centers in Houston and San Antonio, cutting call-answering times from 14 minutes to less than two and a half minutes.

But that’s only part of the story, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, pointed out. He said a constituent told him that a call earlier this week to the TxTag call center was in fact answered in less than three minutes, but then the person was immediately put on hold for 14 minutes.

“Frankly, I doubt your numbers,” Watson said.

Two other senators, Bob Hall, R-Canton, and Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, said they were both caught in the toll confusion, each getting bills for drives on toll roads they didn’t remember making. Garcia said she waited on hold for a while, then gave up and paid the bill. Hall said the late fees attached to his 65-cent toll inflated his bill to about $30.

“I am one of the victims,” Hall said.

The trouble began under a previous group of vendors, including URS and 3M, who were responsible for billing and collecting toll payments until last July. Under their watch, 3.5 million toll charges incurred between June 2012 and March 2014 — all by pay-by-mail drivers without windshield TxTags — became hung up in the system, said James Bass, TxDOT’s chief financial officer. An additional 800,000 charges that were even older, and likewise idling, were dismissed, Bass said.

Why were those toll charges caught in limbo?

“We’re not sure how they became stalled with the old system,” TxDOT spokeswoman Veronica Beyer said later.

But once they were discovered, those 3.5 million charges were billed last fall, after Xerox took over the contract for billing and collecting toll payments. The bills startled and dismayed drivers who either didn’t recall being on the tollways or weren’t used to getting a bill for so many toll charges at one time.

Separately, about 30,000 drivers with prepaid TxTag accounts began to get bills in the mail as if they had driven on a toll road without a tag (and likely at a higher price: pay-by-mail tolls cost 33 percent more than those paid with a toll tag). Officials were unclear Wednesday why this glitch surfaced.

While testing had occurred before the company assumed control of the operation July 9, Xerox had other problems meeting TxDOT deadlines and contractual standards. The company had been fined, in effect, $177,000 by TxDOT for failing to meet those requirements, and Bass said further financial hits to Xerox’s $100 million, five-year contract are likely.

Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said he was surprised that TxDOT officials, given the vintage of most of what they dubbed “aged transactions,” didn’t decide to dismiss all of them rather than only the oldest 800,000.

“No business would expect someone to pay an invoice that’s over two years old if they’ve never even seen it,” Hancock said.

Bass replied that many of those transactions were initially billed close to the time the tolls were incurred. When Hancock asked if TxDOT had proof of which charges had been billed previously, Bass said no.

Watson was most surprised and troubled, he said, by the 30,000 TxTag customers who received bills as if they didn’t have automatic payment in place. Laurie Zavadil, a Xerox vice president called to testify at the hearing, revealed that figure only after repeated questions from Watson.

“The 30,000 is about three times as big as I thought it would be,” Watson said after the hearing. “Xerox has created really a disastrous situation for Central Texas.”

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