WSDOT suspends issue of toll violation notices - investigating "glitches" in ETC Corp system
By Peter Samuel
Washington State DOT say they have ceased issuing toll violations until "glitches" are resolved in the back office supplied by Electronic Transaction Consultants Corp (ETC). In a statement just released they say: "No additional toll infractions (notices) to users of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge will be issued until glitches in the tolling system operated by a Texas-based company are resolved, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) said today."
The announcement is quite sensational in that state governor Chris Gregoire is cited as having asked her transportations secretary Paula Hammond to reconvene a Toll Expert Review Panel to conduct "a mid-course assessment of the performance of ETC Corp." This panel met in 2009 and made recommendations for a statewide back office arrangements forming the concept that lay behind the procurement which ETC won.
Deputy secretary David Dye says the department is "implementing an internal audit" of ETC Corp which took over the toll system operations at the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in February as part of a contract to build a statewide system capable of supporting tolls at several other planned toll facilities including the floating bridges and the Alaskan Way and toll lanes on freeways.
On the other hand the statement quotes David Dye as saying: "Ultimately, we think it's just a small percentage of valid account holders who are incorrectly receiving infractions." He adds: "For those people, we will make it right."
Dye is quoted: "We understand the frustration of receiving a $52 Notice of Infraction if, in fact, your Good To Go! pass and account are current. Nobody likes receiving a fine for something that might not be valid."
Problem at the Tacoma Narrows
The violations notices in question are at the Tacoma Narrows Bridge where they have cash toll collection to the right alongside highspeed open road toll lanes. Some of the problems could be attributable to the operation side by side of TransCore "eGo" ISO 18000 6B sticker transponders and new Federal Signal Sirit ISO 18000 6C transponders.
On the State Route 167 toll lanes WsDOT has FS/Sirit ID 5200 dual mode readers that handle both the old 6B sand the new 6C tags, but at the Tacoma Narrows Bridge there are older TransCore E4 single mode readers to read the 6B tags only.
WSDOT has the option of swapping out the single mode E4 readers for TransCore E6 readers or for FS/Sirit 5200s. But they decided to postpone the installation of dual mode readers at the Tacoma Narrows as an economy measure and handle any 6C tagholders by video.
There are already nearly 120k of the new 6C tags - brand-name Good To Go! - out there but since they cannot yet be read by the single mode 6B readers at the Tacoma Narrows toll point this increases the load on the image processing and systems ETC has deployed.
Over the past two weeks WSDOT has been mailing thousands of toll violation notices that were backlogged two months through April and May. ETC took over the backoffice processing from TransCore mid-February.
The disputed violations notices are for driving through the open road toll lanes without a transponder. (People without a transponder are supposed to pull to the side and pay cash at the cash toll booths.)
WSDOT says some of the complaints are from people who have a 6C 'Good to Go!' account. Although they cannot yet be read by RF signal like the old 6B tags the ETC system is supposed to be able to trace the license plate image to a 6C tagholder and debit the account. That depends of course on the motorist providing a good license plate number on their account application and keeping the account in good standing via a credit/debit card, as well as on correct reads of the license plate via the cameras and optical character recognition systems.
Here legacy TransCore systems are still in use.
One reason for alarm at WSDOT is an apparent sudden increase in the rate of violations from the normal level of about one percent of transactions to about 2.5%. The bridge does an average of 40k toll transactions/day so normally there would be 400 violations/day. However by WSDOT arithmetic the daily number jumped to around 1,000/day with ETC taking over.
60,000 potential violations are backlogged from early April. Some 23,000 violation notices were issued in the past two weeks.
Typically, about 12,000 violation notices have been issued each month out of about 1.3 million vehicles.
"The numbers show that there is an unexplained increase in the number of infractions, and we need clear answers from ETCC before we issue anymore infractions," Dye is quoted.
Dye said today the state will "expand its oversight" of ETC Corp, including:
- expanding a current, ongoing "audit assurance" process of the backlogged infractions to review as many as 1,000 random infractions
- assigning state staff to the Gig Harbor 'Good To Go!' customer service office to supplement ETC Corp staff and to work directly with customers who think they have been incorrectly penalized.
They will hold ETC financially responsible for all violations that have exceeded the 60-day time limit for issuance.
Dye said WSDOT "is individually investigating all complaints from 'Good To Go! 'account holders who think they have been issued an infraction in error."
If a mistake has occurred, the infraction will be dismissed without the need to contest it in the local county court.
Dye is quoted as saying drivers who think they have been issued an infraction in error should contact the customer service center at 1-866-936-8246.
He also encouraged Good To Go! customers to check to make sure their correct license plates are entered on their account and that their credit card information is current and accurate.
Dye said there are a number of reasons, particularly during the transition process to the new tolling contractor, that people might have received infractions, including:
- a glitch with ETCC's automatic account-replenishment system, leaving some customers (about 200 apparently - TRnews) with inadequate funds
- customers who have not updated current credit card information
- a backlog of customer email inquiries to ETCC staff that might have left account issues unresolved before an infraction was issued.
- customers with new Good To Go! passes who did not register all of the license plates that they would use on the new account
We'd add another possibility for the "increase" in violations - that they haven't in fact changed but were 2.5% all along, and that the previous operator TransCore had been missing or dropping 600 out of a thousand a day.
(We've heard of violation rates higher than 2 to 3% especially in early years and with new system.)
The audit will be aimed at trying to work out what's really going on.
ETC's spokesman Carla Kienast said: "ETC Corporation fully supports WSDOT's review of the implementation and operation of the customer service system and should any issues be identified through the audit, ETC will resolve them in cooperation with WSDOT in an expedited manner."
BACKGROUND: As WSDOT describes it the violation process consists of:
1. Photographs taken with automatic cameras over each electronic toll lane and in each cash toll lane to capture license plate images
2. Images review with the license plate images run through an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) program to convert them to letters and numbers, the 20 percent that don't meet the confidence threshold being referred to ETC staff who eyeball the images and enter the license plate letters and numbers they see into the computer system
3. Cross-checking - license plate numbers automatically cross-checked with the Good To Go! account holders list to find if they are indeed Good To Go! customers who, for example, do not have their transponders installed or have them installed incorrectly. Those accounts are charged the $2.75 Good To Go! toll rate, which is indicated on their statement as a VToll (video toll)
4. License plate numbers sent to state Department of Licensing - The remaining license plate numbers are sent as potential violators to the Department of Licensing (DOL) for registered owner information.
5. Second cross-check - The potential violations are checked a second time with Good To Go! account holders with the DOL information to ensure infractions notices are not being sent in error to valid account holders.
6. State Patrol reviews license plate - The State Patrol police review the photos a final time, assuring the registration information matches the plate and vehicle seen in the photograph. They then electronically certify the infraction and ETCC mail and transmit this to the court with jurisdiction at the Narrows bridge - Pierce County Court.
7. Toll infraction mailed - Certified toll "infractions" (violations) are sent to the registered owner of the vehicle from ETCC's mail house in Seattle, and the database of certified infractions is forwarded to the Pierce County Administrative Courts for processing.
Contract from Jan 2010 to Jan 2015
WSDOT conducted the procurement for the back office or customer service/billing contract for a statewide system during 2009 under a competitive procurement. Submitting proposals were:
- TransCore the incumbent at Tacoma Narrows
- ACS State & Local
ETC was selected and a contract signed Dec 23 2009 to begin operations in the spring. The Tacoma Narrows continues ORT + cash, the WS167 toll/HOT lanes and the 520 floating bridge toll system to be all-electronic tolling (transponder reads plus cameras).
Contract price was "approximately $23m" for 5 years operations.
The WSDOT press release Dec 30 2009 said: "ETC is known in the tolling industry for its leading innovations in large-scale electronic toll collection systems. ETC's systems currently collect about one-third of all toll transactions in the U.S."
How serious for ETC Corp - will this play into the PANYNJ procurement?
It looks as though it will be a month or more before the results of the WSDOT audit of ETC are known. Meanwhile some of the company's competitors are working over the weekend to document possible protests against ETC's big contract with the Port Authority NYNJ. Monday is the deadline for protests.
At least two competitors with ETC tell us they bid around $35m for the design-build part of the PANYNJ contract awarded to ETC Corp at the last PANYNJ board meeting for $61m. And they tell us their operations bids were $1m or $2m below ETC.
The WSDOT audit, a 'cure' notice against ETC by Miami Dade Expressway Authority and other contract difficulties seem certain to be used to bolster the argument that PANYNJ is making a mistake in selecting this company, and paying more for its services than competitors ACS, Telvent and TransCore.