SUNPASS:Orlando and State Office of Toll Ops Clash

May 3, 1999
By Peter Samuel

SUNPASS:Orlando and State Office of Toll Ops Clash

Originally published in issue 39 of Tollroads Newsletter, which came out in May 1999.

Subjects:clash over Sunpass

Facilities:OOCEA Orlando

Agencies:OOCEA OTO FDOT

Locations:Orlando FL

The system does about 200,000 transactions/day and collects 45% of OOCEA revenues.

SunPass is an Amtech backscatter system just being introduced in south Florida on FDOT turnpikes and does about a tenth OOCEA’s transactions, though it is scheduled to be spread across the whole of Florida turnpikes by next year.

OOCEA has said it will cooperate with state plans to transition to an interoperable toll system statewide, but only so long as that does not jeopardize the ability of OOCEA to maintain its existing standards of accuracy in electronic tolling. OOCEA’s monthly board minutes show great concern at the Orlando agency over poor performance of the SunPass and an impasse between OOCEA and FDOT over transitional arrangements.

Deborah Stemle, director of the state office of toll operations (OTO) said in a telephone conference call with OOCEA and other officials April 15 that SunPass was operating at about 95% accuracy. This followed some months of tense relations between the two agencies. OOCEA officials supported by their board of directors declared the performance of SunPass unacceptable in Orlando, noting it would mean 10,000 questionable toll transactions out of 200k per day.

The present E-PASS system in Orlando generates an average of 250 telephone calls per day about tolls. OOCEA believes its ETC system operates at an average 99.996% accuracy rate which suggests an average of 8 errors are made each day out of 200k ET transactions. Tom Ross, the OOCEA staff lawyer told the last board meeting that their Customer Service Center is presently able to handle all customer queries and to identify and correct each one of the handful of mistakes the system makes daily. Its ability to manage complaints and mistakes has been so good that in all court cases held in recent years “the judiciary has simply accepted the integrity of our system,” he said.

Ross and Jorge Figueredo, OOCEA’s head of toll operations, both told the board that major increases would have to be made in customer service center staff to deal with anything like FDOT/OTO’s reported 5% inaccuracy rate and they said that they feared they would quickly lose credibility with the public and the courts with such poor performance.

Board Chairman Wayne Rich says that while OOCEA wants to cooperate on interoperability with SunPass it will make no compromise in accepting a system that would disrupt its existing clientele or lower the standard of service to which its customers have grown accustomed. OOCEA will to do its own testing of SunPass on its own system, having grown skeptical about FDOT/OTO’s ability to manage SunPass. TransCore, the country’s largest toll system integrator will give it independent advice on SunPass performance and system integration.

Crooked dealings?

SunPass is a complex system integration job which was granted to a little-known Tallahassee FL firm called the Kelly Development Group. There has been industry talk that the system integration job in FL is too big for a small local group with no prior experience in integrating ET, and statements that the contract was improperly granted to Kelly by FDOT without competitive bids. We called the Kelly group and left a message but got no callback.

Deborah Stemle director of the FDOT office of toll operations told us that OOCEA misinterpreted her remarks in the teleconference. She says dedicated ET lanes are working to 99.98% accuracy, beyond the contract spec with Amtech which requires 99.92%. She said that the violation enforcement system (VES) and backroom operations need more work to get them operating properly and that was why she used the term “95% functionality” to characterize the situation. The actual number she said she pulled out of the air to illustrate a sense of how far along they were in getting the system to adequate performance.

In a letter to OOCEA chairman Wayne Rich Apr 29 Stemle said that his board had been misinformed about what she’d said, which was that “we were confident that we had at least 95% of the expected functionality of the whole system.” She said that by the time they are ready to begin installation of SunPass in the Orlando area “We will have been fully operational for a year and will install a system that meets all accuracy requirements, in the lane transactions and in all the supporting tasks.”

Stemle confirmed in an interview with us that the Kelly Development Group was given overall system integration of Florida’s turnpikes without competitive bids. She says they are a group of software writers who have a longstanding relationship with the office of toll operations and who know the turnpike system well. She says they “like staff really.” The system integration is being done in effect as an “in-house project” like that undertaken by the New York State Thruway when it went to electronic tolling (ET).

Amtech/Intermech which has the principal contract to supply ETC systems to FDOT/OTO under an intensely competitively bid $38m contract is supplying its well proven Type 2 backscatter transponders for SunPass commercial accounts and newly developed Type 3 transponders with a display for private account holders. Amtech is only responsible for lane integration in the 90 dedicated ET lanes, though it is installing several hundred more antennas and readers for mixed toll lanes.

The Kelly group has a formidable job of writing the software to make the mixed lanes work and to integrate four different lane controller types with the back office systems. There are two types of Cubic lane controllers, Amtech lane controllers and a proprietory lane controller type, all mixed together at each major plaza. Moreover the SunPass system has an unusual (for North America anyway) writeback to the tag, plus possible reconciliations, to do in the case of private accounts.

The FDOT plan for SunPass is to deploy commercial ET accounts in the normal north American way with toll data for each transaction sent to a centralized or host computer. But the private accounts will not have their primary storage centrally organized. Rather detailed data on each transaction is written back to be stored in the memory of the Type 3 transponder on the motorist’s windshield. This is a far more demanding procedure in the lane than the more normal centralized account system which doesn’t rely on quick writebacks of all the toll transaction details. And critics say it may create major customer service problems because of lack of central files of toll data.

SunPass private patrons, for example, are currently being tolled according to the toll class encoded in the transponder as the vehicle clears the gate because this is all that can be gotten in the time available. Vehicle classification is rechecked some moments later with axle count gear, by which time it is too late to make any correction needed in writing to the transponder.

Vehicle classification

Of course some US toll agency systems don’t even attempt systematic vehicle classification in the lane and rely solely on the vehicle class encoded in the ET tag. HCTRA in Houston is an example of a common situation with ETC. A driver with a tractor trailer can drive his personal Toyota Camry to the customer service center and get a car-class encoded transponder, stick it on the windshield of his 18-wheeler and be confident that all its trips through the ETC lanes will be billed only at the Camry’s 2-axle rate. (HCTRA is moving to install vehicle classification equipment to thwart vehicle class cheating like this, but it has gone on for some years in many toll systems without the equipment in place to stop it.)

SunPass is attempting to correct vehicle class mismatches by storing the data at the lane and then hitting the transponder for a correction the next time it is read. Critics of the design say this has the potential for generating confusion and hard-to-manage customer complaints.

Light curtains used to detect the beginning and ends of vehicles are not yet fully integrated with treadles and loops into an adequate vehicle classification system for SunPass, it is reported. The system doesn’t know if it is ‘seeing’ one very long vehicle or several shorter vehicles when all it has to rely on is axle count registrations from pavement loops or treadles.

Such systems are rarely got working right straight off. FDOT will of course get this stuff fixed, but sometimes the fixes cause other problems, so attaining overall high performance can be an agonizingly long process – which some operators say is never really finished.

By end May some 23k SunPass tags are on motorists windshields and ETC is in operation at 19 plazas in southern FL with 2 new plazas being got up each week. SunPass dedicated lanes use rapid-rise gates that are timed to limit motorists to the posted 25mph speed limit through the plaza. As is almost always the case with ET conversion SunPass patrons generally love their transponders. System problems are largely unseen so long as customers are generally given the benefit of the doubt. But system fixes have to be installed in a reasonable period or it won’t be doing its job collecting revenue properly.

Transition disagreement

FDOT/OTO, according to OOCEA board minutes, has proposed a two month phase out of Mark IV tags on OOCEA facilities. This has been flatly ruled out by OOCEA.

Seeing the teething problems of SunPass and what it regards as an unrealistically fast deployment schedule at FDOT, OOCEA has employed TransCore to develop a system for OOCEA toll roads in which its installed base of Mark IV tags can work in the same lanes as SunPass Amtech tags without interference between the two systems. Then it can keep the two systems working together as long as it wants – allowing a phase out of the Mark IV tags over as little as a few months if it decides to go along with FDOT/OTO desires, or going some years reading both types of tags in the same lanes if it wants to keep its existing Mark IV system.

Speed writebacks

OOCEA is not yet sure that at some of the speeds it does ETC – it doesn’t use gates and many motorists go through at 40mph – that it can reliably write back information to SunPass private account Type 3 tags. Moreover its new Western Exwy will have a full highway speed plaza needing to handle 75mph+ tolling next year.

OOCEA will keep a centralized host computer system for all its accounts so instant writeback to the patron’s tag will not be needed for its own account-holders. However it will work with TransCore to develop instant writeback for FDOT’s private accountholders using the FDOT type 3 tags on the OOCEA toll roads.

The FDOT/OTO’s Deborah Stemle says she’s confident the SunPass system will do adequate writebacks at full highway speed and expects to deploy it on full speed toll lanes on the Suncoast Parkway north of Tampa when that FDOT toll road opens late next year.

An intriguing backdrop to this ETC conversion drama, and the jousting between the two toll agencies, is speculation that OOCEA exec-director Hal Worrall may soon be departing Orlando for Tallahassee to be Governor Jeb Bush’s new Secretary of Transp. He’d then be in charge of OTO! (Contacts Kimberley Poulton FDOT 954 975 4855x1104. Steve Pustelnyk OOCEA 407 425 8606.)


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