The Washington State Department of Transportation makes a convenient villain.
Combine a massive budget, the region’s maddening traffic and a string of mind-boggling transportation-related mishaps — freshest on most people’s mind, the boondoggle that is Bertha, the state Route 99 tunnel-boring machine in Seattle — and you’ve got everything you need to make DOT a frequent punching bag for pundits.
Fair or not, the state agency gets the brunt of public blame whenever something goes awry.
I think the DOT-is-incompetent narrative is too easy. Sure, it’s great fodder for folks like me to stir outrage with — who doesn’t get frustrated when the agency responsible for spending tax dollars on something that affects us all, like our roadways, makes mistakes — but the truth of the agency’s missteps is usually not so black and white.
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The latest black eye for DOT came to light last just week, when it was revealed that a glitch in a server operated by the state’s private toll vendor, Electronic Transaction Consultants of Richardson, Texas, resulted in delayed billing for some 126,000 transactions between March 2015 and last month.
The tolling glitch meant that some drivers who crossed the Narrows or state Route 520 bridges, or drove in the express lanes on Interstate 405, got a surprise: bills, ranging from about $110 for infrequent fliers to up to a whopping $1,300 for heavy users.
The tolling glitch — which, it should be noted, isn’t a first for DOT — meant that some drivers who crossed the Narrows or state Route 520 bridges, or drove in the express lanes on Interstate 405, got a surprise: bills, ranging from about $110 for infrequent fliers to up to a whopping $1,300 for heavy users.
It’s safe to say the gaffe resulted in a major gulp for those who received such an unexpected piece of mail.
And, to the further chagrin of those on the receiving end, apparently there’s nothing in the state’s contract with Electronic Transaction Consultants that allow us to penalize the company.
In other words, the private vendor gets less than a slap on the wrist for all of this, while drivers — who, admittedly, had been benefiting from a bug in the system — are left to retroactively reach for the checkbook and settle up a substantial debt.
“There are penalties in the contract that can be assessed when the vendor doesn’t meet key performance metrics,” Department of Transportation spokeswoman Emily Pace explains.
“However, none of the contractual penalties apply in this particular case for billing delayed trips.”
I’m not a contract expert. But it sure seems like the timely and accurate assessment of tolls should be near the top of any list of key performance metrics.
To its credit, DOT seems to be handling its latest bad headline about as thoughtfully as we could hope. “We certainly are aware it’s an impact and frustrating for our customers,” Pace told The News Tribune’s transportation reporter Adam Lynn last week.
Meanwhile, ETC Corporation President and CEO Keith Rayborn issued a statement Monday saying his company, “sincerely apologizes for the delay in invoicing and any inconvenience this has caused.”
“We fully understand the customer’s frustration and are working diligently with WSDOT, and our Good To Go customer service team, to allow more time for customers to make payments for these trips,” the statement continues. “We have implemented additional process monitoring and preventative measures to ensure this issue does not happen in the future.”
On that note, according to Pace, DOT has extended the amount of time for all affected customers to pay their bill, ranging from an additional 30 days up to six months, depending on the amount owed. She says drivers can also lower their bill by opening a Good To Go account, even if it’s just temporarily. (Slick marketing move, DOT, very slick.)
And, “If a customer is concerned about paying their bill even with the extended payment time they may call customer service and we will work with them,” Pace says.
We are taking our lessons learned from this contract and looking to improve the next contract.
State Department of Transportation Spokeswoman Emily Pace
These are all solid gestures. Reducing or waiving the delayed tolls altogether — given the relatively small number of affected transactions, some 126,000 out of millions recorded each year — wouldn’t have broken the bank, but probably wouldn’t have been entirely fair.
The state might even end up showing additional lenience. Pace says that, “If for any reason a customer does not pay their tolls by the extended due date, the customer can call Good To Go and we will waive any resulting fees and penalties as long as they pay the original toll amount.”
But back to the big picture. Pace tells me,“We are taking our lessons learned from this contract and looking to improve the next contract.” That’s important, because, in December, Pace says the state will issue a Request for Proposal and begin the process of hashing out its next one.
Here’s what seems clear from DOT’s latest tolling mishap: If the current contract doesn’t allow for a private vendor to be penalized in a situation like this, it obviously lacks the necessary teeth to protect tollpayers – an objective that should be a priority.
The next agreement shouldn’t be so soft.