In Washington state’s rush to toll more highways, it neglected to create a tolling system that could reliably collect drivers’ money, a new audit report says.
The audit released Wednesday cites several areas where the state’s electronic tolling system “lacks key functions,” including identifying errors in drivers’ bills, correcting billings and making sure bills show up at the right address.
For instance, about 6 percent of toll bills mailed between July 2014 and March 2015 were returned as undeliverable, due to the agency’s inability to confirm drivers’ addresses, the audit found.
“The result has been customer frustration, delays in creating accurate toll bills and missed opportunities for revenue collection,” according to the performance audit of Washington State Department of Transportation’s tolling operations.
The state collects tolls at four locations: the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the state Route 520 bridge, and high-occupancy vehicle lanes on Interstate 405 and state Route 167. Between December 2011 and June 2015, the state's toll system collected more than $425 million.
The audit follows widespread complaints from drivers who have said they received toll bills for trips they never took or for cars they don’t own. Drivers also have complained that penalties are excessive, prompting the Legislature last year to direct the Department of Transportation to develop a civil penalty forgiveness program.
To Patty Rubstello, the assistant secretary for the agency’s tolling division, the audit highlights what officials already know: It’s time for a new tolling system. Transportation has already spent about $600,000 preparing to go out to bid for a new tolling vendor in December.
“It emphasizes the need to have a new system, and that’s good,” Rubstello said of the audit.
“There are new things out there that we can offer that help our customers. As much support as we can get around that, the better.”
Overall, the audit says the state’s tolling system doesn’t store tolling data in a way that allows for easy, automatic checking of errors, or analysis of how the tolling system is performing. One reason for that is because officials didn’t create those functions while developing the electronic system between 2011 and 2015, focusing instead on expanding toll lanes to Interstate 405, the audit says.
The audit also recommends that the Department of Transportation try harder to collect toll fees before imposing penalties, something it says most other tolling programs do. Such outreach efforts could increase the amount of toll revenue collected, the report says.
While Washington’s toll system has accumulated $96.4 million in outstanding tolls, fees and penalties, the state expects to recover only $37.1 million of that money, according to the audit.
Yet transportation officials argue their collection rate is high compared to other states. Rubstello said 94 percent of state’s tolls are collected electronically or through regular billing, before any penalties are imposed.
“Our expert review panel says we’re doing very well in this area,” she said.
Many of the recommendations listed in the performance audit will be incorporated into plans for the new tolling system, transportation officials said.