A state audit criticized Washington’s toll recovery, highlighting the fact that WSDOT does not currently use a collection agency to recover remaining unpaid tolls from drivers.
IN fiscal year 2015, drivers made more than 37 million tolled trips on Washington’s tolled facilities. The tolls that the Washington State Department of Transportation collected helped fund needed improvements and transportation options along congested travel corridors.
While the vast majority of those tolled trips were processed correctly, we know errors happened. We also know that when you are the traveler whose bill was incorrect, it’s frustrating. That’s why WSDOT is demanding accountability and improved customer service from our toll vendor to make sure that when errors happen, we work together swiftly to fix the problem.
Media reports describe how our toll vendor was late mailing bills to 8,200 vehicle owners — some sent almost a year after the fact. Sending multiple bills to an Illinois man whose car has the same license plate number as a truck from Illinois that crossed one of our tolled bridges just added to that frustration. Our customers are busy people who don’t need the hassle created by these types of mistakes. Regardless of whether a vendor or another state’s licensing office is at the root of an error, WSDOT is redoubling its commitment to effectively manage the program.
Once alerted to an issue, WSDOT takes every step we can to inform customers and the public and to reduce customer impacts. For example, we contacted those 8,200 vehicle owners as soon as we knew of the problem and provided the option of up to six months to pay overdue tolls. As the people affected were pay-by-mail customers, we also offered to lower the amount owed by helping them open a Good To Go! account.
The issues described above represent the experiences of less than one-third of 1 percent of all tolled trips, but our commitment to give each driver the customer service they deserve is 100 percent. We know we have some work to do.
WSDOT is committed to continuous improvement in our service to Washington taxpayers. We are using lessons learned since the Toll Division was created in 2009 to improve service to the traveling public, including the development of a new contract with a toll vendor.
On Wednesday, the state Auditor’s Office released a performance audit of WSDOT’s toll-collection system. We welcome many of the recommendations, and in many cases, have already begun the efforts they recommended. In some cases, we stand by our current practices, which we put in place since the time period covered by the audit.
For example, WSDOT collects on 94 percent of tolls we charge, a performance rate that is among the best of toll facilities in the nation, according to an independent expert review panel. The audit criticized our toll recovery, highlighting the fact that WSDOT does not currently use a collection agency to recover remaining unpaid tolls from drivers. Instead, WSDOT developed a more cost-effective process, with support from the Legislature. Today 50,000 customers have had more than $20 million in fees and penalties waived. Our goal isn’t to collect penalties, it is to ensure travelers pay the toll amount they owe for using the system.
Another item mentioned — safeguarding customer information — is nonnegotiable for WSDOT. In April, an independent audit certified that our vendor had taken the necessary steps to receive the accreditation mentioned in the report, further strengthening the systems that guard customers’ information.
Finally, the performance audit states that “effectively managed organizations engage in leadership and management activities that facilitate operational success.” We agree. The Toll Division has strong leadership at the helm, including a new assistant secretary with demonstrated experience in the planning, delivery and operations of toll systems. Her team understands the complexity of system operations and can deliver on the mission of supporting a vital component of managing congestion across our transportation system as our region’s population grows.
Our goal is to treat every call, every complaint, like it’s coming from a friend or family member. Like any other business, public or private, that processes tens of millions of transactions annually, we will never be error-free. But when mistakes are made, the goal should be that every customer is treated fairly.