TAMPA BAY, Fla. - More than 100 days into the SunPass debacle, a new discovery may explain why tens of thousands of customers have flooded call centers with complaints about inaccurate and unfair bills: the state has been unable to post accurate timestamps on some toll transactions.
The problem was identified this week by the Central Florida Expressway Authority (CFX), the largest tolling authority in the state to opt out of the SunPass system consolidation.
The multi-agency project, designed to upgrade billing systems for the Florida Turnpike, Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority, and the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, went horribly wrong upon launch in early June.
CFX discovered the timestamps on some toll transactions were off by up to 9.5 hours, a problem first reported by the Orlando Sentinel Thursday morning. CFX customers started to complain of billing errors this week as the agency started processing SunPass tolls to their accounts Florida Turnpike-operated roadways.
"I think this will create confusion for the customer that they may not know what's accurate," Michelle Maikisch, chief of staff for CFX, told 10Investigates Thursday. "We don't know what the solution is."
10News viewers have been complaining for months about billing errors that have included charges while they were at work, out of town, and sleeping.
FDOT did not respond to 10Investigates' questions until late Thursday; it is not clear how many customers and toll transactions have been affected, but the agency suggested it was limited to Central Florida E-Pass customers. FDOT made no public disclosure about their transaction logs being inaccurate.
10Investigates previously revealed how SunPass customers' Terms of Service puts the responsibility of identifying billing errors on customers themselves.
Earlier this month, FDOT and its vendor still had 45,695 outstanding customer service requests to address. And that number could surge again when Toll-by-Plate bills go out in October. Customer hold times exceeded four hours at one point in August.
Here is a running report card of other SunPass problems 10Investigates has tracked:
Issue: Downplaying of problems; deceptive press releases; slow response to questions and records requests.
Concern: Floridians had no idea how bad the SunPass failures were until 10Investigates broke the news on June 19 that the state was unable to process tens of millions of toll transactions. It was another week before the state even acknowledged problems, and it spent months downplaying the severity of the system disruption. No public notice was given when dozens of drivers’ personal data were accidentally compromised in July, and no public notice was given when FDOT learned some toll transactions were not appearing accurately on customers' accounts.
Response: After two months of 10Investigates stories and sometimes-deceptive press releases, FDOT got more forthcoming with public records and SunPass-related information. The public still has no explanation -- outside of 10Investigates' reporting -- of how 6 million customers were inconvenienced so badly, but the agency promises answers once it is able to conduct an investigation.
Report Card: Unsatisfactory
Issue: The technology meltdown limited access to SunPass accounts; the SunPass website frequently crashes; billing was delayed by weeks and months.
Concern: It hasn’t just been one computer issue - it’s been virtually every computer issue: customers couldn't access receipts to get work reimbursements; accounts were compromised; transaction logs have widespread inaccuracies; drivers got hit with large and unpredictable charges when tolls finally were processed; and the delays mean account errors are very difficult to spot and correct.
Response: FDOT, its partners and its vendors have been working around-the-clock to fix the computer issues, and they announced there will be no fines or penalties on customers during the ongoing disruption. The toll backlog was finally cleared in mid-August for many SunPass users, but E-Pass and Toll-By-Plate customers won't see their invoices until October. They will have six months to pay off the charges without penalty. The state rolled out a plan to reimburse customers for bank overdraft fees. But account errors – which may be frequent – are the responsibility of the customer to identify and report before refunds are issued.
Report Card: Improving
Issue: Frustrated customers unable to get problems fixed.
Concern: Some customers had to wait nearly five hours to speak to representatives and SunPass' promise to respond to emails within two days is going unfulfilled.
Response: An FDOT spokesperson says extra staff members have been dedicated to customer service but has been unable to provide specifics over the course of the last three months. In July, an agency spokesperson touted website improvements and Conduent's reduction of call center wait times; but in August, the website continued to crash, and call center wait times exploded as more drivers discovered unexpected and some inexplicable charges on their accounts. The current hold times are back under an hour, but nearly 50,000 service requests remain outstanding.
Report Card: Unsatisfactory
Issue: Contractors and FDOT all had a role in system failures; the state is not in a rush to sort it out.
Concern: Are contractors incentivized to get problems fixed fast? Will individuals who made big mistakes be disciplined? Will the state learn from mistakes to prevent it from happening again?
Response: The mid-August announcement that Florida's inspector general would investigate came only after 75 days and four 10Investigates interviews with Scott. Payments were halted to Conduent in late June, but 10Investigates revealed the company is still getting paid on other contracts. The state announced an $800,000 fine to Conduent, and it said the company will pay for customers' overdraft reimbursements as well. However, no fines or penalties have been mentioned for corporation Atkins, the general contractor responsible for oversight on the project, or HNTB, the corporation that oversaw the awarding of the contract to embattled Conduent in the first place. It appears no FDOT employees have yet been disciplined, even though the agency's management may not have followed proper protocol in approving the testing before SunPass went live with the new system in June. It could be months before the governor's inspector general reveals any findings.
Report Card: Incomplete
Issue: Customers who use toll-by-plate or other mail billing have not received bills yet.
Concern: It appears the state was unable to match all of the transactions to vehicle owners, delaying the posting of charges. Viewers are also reporting errors in plate identification, landing other drivers' tolls on their accounts.
Response: An FDOT spokesperson has been saying for months all transactions will eventually be billed to customers "once quality assurance processes are completed." The state finally acknowledged in mid-August invoices likely won't go out until October, and customers will have six months to pay them off.
Report Card: Failing
►Want to view an interactive timeline of the SunPass maintenance woes? Click or tap here