Pierce County is seeking reimbursement from the state for having to process tens of thousands of Tacoma Narrows Bridge toll infractions last year that were dismissed due to the buggy transition to a new tolling contractor.
County Executive Pat McCarthy wrote in a letter to Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond that Pierce County District Court lost $1.9 million in revenue for work that eventually proved moot when the fines went unpaid.
Citing a spirit of compromise, however, McCarthy requested in her August letter that the county need only be paid back $100,000: the estimated cost to process the infractions from the latter half of the year. The state already paid the county $40,000 for handling infractions that were thrown out before May 2011.
Asked in an interview last week why she limited her request to costs and didnt push to recoup all the lost revenue, McCarthy said it would be counterproductive because the money would come out of public coffers.
One government agency suing another government agency isnt really in the best interest of all taxpayers, she said.
It was a very, very messy separation going to this new system, and district court was doing a body of work, McCarthy added.
By focusing on costs alone, she said: Im going to make sure the Pierce County taxpayers are made whole and get what they have paid for.
In her written response sent in October, Hammond expressed a willingness for her staff to meet with county officials to settle the bill. She wrote the county would need to show documentation to verify expenses it incurred.
As those events were extremely frustrating for WSDOT, as well, I can understand they also presented challenges to you and your jurisdiction, Hammond wrote.
Pierce County District Court is gathering documents and should be finished in about a week, court administrator Chuck Ramey said last week.
Thats just an estimate, he said of the $100,000 amount. Were going through and doing the detailed analysis.
Pierce County is now out of the infraction business entirely. It still keeps tabs on 95,000 cases of unpaid infractions that have been turned over to collections going back to the bridges opening in July 2007, Ramey said.
This week marks the one-year anniversary of a photo-tolling system. Before Dec. 3, 2011, Pierce County District Court accepted payments and heard appeals of toll infractions. For every $52 infraction, the court kept $40 while the remaining $12 went to the bridge fund to pay for toll collection and maintenance as well as pay down debt.
Now motorists who cross the bridge without paying at the tollbooth or having money deducted electronically from their Good to Go accounts receive a $6 bill instead of a violation in the mail. Those who still dont pay receive a civil penalty rather than an infraction. A state administrative judge hears appeals instead of a district court judge.
Photo tolling was initially scheduled to begin in March 2011, shortly after the new contractor, Electronic Transaction Consultants Corp., took over tolling operations statewide. The transition was delayed nine months due to a litany of problems ETCC encountered upon taking the reins.
Numerous problems caused the electronic toll system to erroneously process hundreds of thousands of paid crossings as potential violations, creating a huge backlog. When the contractor resumed mailing infraction notices in earnest in mid-May of last year, customers complained they were being fined even when having enough money in their Good to Go accounts.
An internal audit finalized this month identified five root causes that contributed to the fiasco:
• The state requested all Good to Go customers to update their accounts during the transition to the system. This led to problems if a customer provided incomplete account information, made data-entry errors or waited to set up an account after installing a windshield transponder on a vehicle.
• There was a delay in the contractors installation of new equipment to read the new windshield transponders being sold for the new statewide tolling program. The old equipment couldnt read the new transponders, and the tolling system identified those motorists as likely scofflaws, adding to the backlog.
• WSDOT had only a tiny window into ETCCs toll nerve center, so it didnt have a full picture of how the company was processing toll transactions and couldnt quickly identify and respond to customer complaints.
• ETCCs delay in starting photo tolling forced it to process and mail infraction notices, a task it never planned to do. It unsuccessfully attempted to emulate the system used by the former contractor.
• Banks had problems replenishing Good to Go accounts in the new system. Some of the difficulties stemmed from customers not setting up their accounts properly; others were the result of system glitches. State tolling director Craig Stone added two more causes in his written response to the audit:
• The surge in Good to Go customers emails and phone calls when the new system went live overwhelmed ETCCs employees, adding to the backlog as the contractor struggled to clear the requests.
• A system glitch caused Good to Go account information and photos of license plates to be separated, causing the system to treat them as potential violations.
The audit made several recommendations, all technical in nature, that the state says its following to improve oversight of the tolling system and the reporting of toll transactions.
The audit identified a total of 53,924 tolling infractions went unpaid as the court ended up dismissing them due to the cascading series of problems. That is fewer than asserted by ETCC and the district court.
The state did pay the the Pierce County court $40,882 for its work processing an early batch of violations sent out before April 2011. So the discussions between the county and state relate to work the court did in the latter part of last year.
Under an agreement, the state will withhold a total of $1.1 million in contract payments to ETCC as compensation for the lost toll and infraction revenue on the Narrows Bridge during this period.
The state did receive a clean financial audit for tolling operations on the state Route 520 floating bridge in Seattle. Although those tolls go into a separate pot, they are collected through the same system used for the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
To me, this reflects on a better, stable future, Stone said.
Christian Hill: 253-274-7390