WSDOT investigating glitches in Tacoma Narrows Bridge toll-collection operations

No additional toll infractions 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.

WSDOT Deputy Secretary David Dye said the department is implementing an internal financial audit of Electronic Transaction Consultants Corp. (ETCC) of Texas, the company that took over toll operations on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in February.

Also today, Gov. Chris Gregoire asked Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond to reconvene a Tolling Expert Review Panel to conduct a mid-course assessment of the performance of ETCC. The panel originally was convened in 2009 by the Joint Transportation Committee and made recommendations on customer service center operations and tolling-violation enforcement.

“We understand the frustration of receiving a $52 Notice of Infraction if, in fact, your Good To Go! pass and account are current,” Dye said. “Nobody likes receiving a fine for something that might not be valid.”

WSDOT began mailing thousands of backlogged toll infractions in the past two weeks. Issuance of violations, which normally occurs daily, was delayed for several months when ETCC took over toll operations for the Tacoma bridge.

Since then, some drivers have complained that they have received infractions even though their Good To Go! accounts are in good standing.

Dye said it appears the rate of potential infractions has increased from about 1 percent of total transactions to about 2.5 percent. About 1.3 million vehicles cross the bridge each month.

Currently, there are about 60,000 potential infractions backlogged from early April. In addition, some 23,000 infractions were issued in the past two weeks. Typically, about 12,000 infractions are issued each month to drivers who illegally use the Tacoma Narrows Bridge without a Good To Go! pass, without stopping at a toll booth to pay, or without having adequate funds in their Good To Go! account.

“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 said.

Dye also said today the state will expand its oversight of ETCC, 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 ETCC staff and to work directly with customers who think they have been incorrectly penalized;

— Holding ETCC 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 Pierce County District Court. Dye said 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 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.

“Ultimately, we think it’s just a small percentage of valid account holders who are incorrectly receiving infractions,” Dye said. “For those people, we will make it right.”

The review process of potential toll violations on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge follows a multi-step process:

1. Photographs are taken — Cameras in each electronic toll lane and in each toll booth lane capture license plate photographs;

2. Photographs are reviewed — The license plate images are run through an Optical Character Recognition program to convert them to letters and numbers. About 20 percent that cannot be converted automatically are reviewed individually by the toll vendor staff and entered into the secure computer system;

3. Cross-checking — The license plate numbers are automatically cross-checked with the Good To Go! account holders to determine 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 Department of Licensing — The remaining license plate numbers are sent to the Department of Licensing (DOL) for registered owner information;

5. Second cross-check — The potential violations are once again cross-checked with Good To Go! account holders with the DOL information to ensure infractions are not being sent in error to valid account holders;

6. State Patrol reviews license plate — The State Patrol reviews 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 to Pierce County Court;

7. Infraction mailed — Certified infractions are sent to registered owner of the vehicle from ETCC’s mail house in Seattle. The database of certified infractions also is forwarded to the Pierce County Administrative Courts for processing.

“We want to thank our Good To Go! customers for their patience as we look into these issues involving the Tacoma Narrows Bridge toll operations,” Dye said. “We’re as interested as they are in making sure toll violators are penalized and that drivers in good standing are not fined.”