WSDOT prioritizes finger pointing over serving customers

Following the announcement that thousands of drivers recently received late toll bills dating back up to one year, Sen Andy Hill said the Washington State Department of Transportation’s handling of the issue has been poor, but expected. What WSDOT is calling a computer error by its tolling contractor Electronic Transaction Consultants left 126,000 trips between March 2015 and this past month unprocessed, which were just recently sent to affected customers with no explanation or apology.

“We continue to see a customer-hostile approach from WSDOT and no accountability as the mistakes continue to pile up,” said Hill, of Redmond. “In addition to a major mistake, which can happen, WSDOT tried to sweep this under the rug. Even with the Legislature taking a more active role in overseeing WSDOT given continuing problems, we weren’t informed and only found out from a media report, who learned about it from a customer. In fact, if you received a late toll bill because of this mistake it’s impossible to find any information on WSDOT’s own web site explaining why or what to do. You wouldn’t see a successful private company treat users this way. In normal situations the service provider would try to make it right to keep the customer, but WSDOT sees drivers as only a means to collect money, not hard working taxpayers trying to get where they need to go.”

The mistake is the latest in a series of issues including stolen credit card information by an ETC employee who had previously been convicted of theft. ETC has insufficient protocols in place to prevent the breach. In December, thousands of drivers weren’t able to pay tolls due to credit card processing issues, but were advised by WSDOT not to contact them, but simply wait for the issue to be fixed and try again.

In this case, WSDOT says ETC didn’t replace an aging server that failed. Once fixed unbilled trips were sent to customers with no explanation and little time to pay in some cases thousands of dollars.

“We’ve taken steps in the Legislature to directly improve operations at WSDOT and to send a message that repeated mistakes and a lack of regard for preventing them in the future will not be tolerated,” said Hill. “We’ve heard all of the excuses, but continue to see the same mistakes. The state shouldn’t be in the business of penalizing people who try to do the right thing and should be upfront and accountable when a mistake is made whether it’s the agency or a contractor. Pointing fingers isn’t going to improve the tolling system and leads to an even worse customer experience.”

Hill sponsored legislation enacted in 2015 that forces WSDOT to improve customer service and outreach to customers with unpaid tolls by notifying them directly via email and phone before civil penalties are charged. It also provided customers with a chance to explain mitigating circumstances and actually have civil penalties removed. Finally it requires WSDOT to communicate with the Department of Licensing to ensure personal information is updated across all systems and have toll accounts be more accessible for review by drivers.

Following a series of issues beyond tolling problems the Senate voted down the nomination of state Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson in February, effectively removing her from the position.