Investigative Summary:

This story is part of KXAN’s “TxTag Troubles” investigative project launched May 7, 2023. Following related reports in recent years, our team rededicated its resources to this major consumer issue, after hundreds of viewers complained to us about resurfaced billing and customer service problems with the state’s tollway operator and its contracted vendors. During our reporting, the Texas Department of Transportation began reaching out to viewers who had contacted KXAN to resolve their issues, and state lawmakers renewed their approach to fixing future TxTag problems.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The top official at the Texas Department of Transportation said he believes current vendors operating the state’s tollway systems are performing better than the previous ones, despite “documented deficiencies” with one company’s handling of back-office systems and millions of dollars in liquidated damages assessed to another business in charge of customer service and billing.

“We had a really significant issue with a previous vendor, and we had to terminate their contract,” TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams said. “There has been some recovery because of that trying to address some of the issues that they had with some of the data migration that we had to work through.”

“These vendors, on balance, I think they have been doing an exceptional job working through them,” Williams added.

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KXAN Interview Outreach

TxDOT Executive Director Requests

In March 2023, KXAN repeatedly contacted TxDOT officials, requesting an on-camera interview with Executive Director Marc Williams. This timeline details our attempts to speak with the agency head.

  • March 13: KXAN emails TxDOT, requesting interview.
  • March 15: TxDOT asks for details. KXAN described types of complaints, asks for specific interview date
  • March 20: KXAN follows up via email. TxDOT replies, saying it’s working on the request.
  • March 21: TxDOT emails, asking for questions. KXAN replies with discussion topics.
  • March 23: KXAN follows up via voicemail.
  • March 24:  KXAN follows up via email. TxDOT responds it has no update on interview request.
  • March 27:  KXAN requests update via email, telling TxDOT we’ll attend upcoming commission meeting for interview.
  • March 29: KXAN attends commission planning meeting, where Williams asks for KXAN viewer tips.
  • March 30: KXAN delivers flash drive with tips and gives public comment at commission meeting. Williams agrees to on-camera interview after meeting. TxDOT also sends statement via email.

TxDOT provided to KXAN through open records request more than 800 complaints the agency received since 2020 about mostly customer service and billing issues. Within 10 days of asking KXAN viewers to send us stories related to TxTag issues, our team received more than 580 responses.

For weeks, our team sent emails and called requesting a sit-down interview with TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams to discuss technical errors and billing and customer services issues raised in complaints from TxTag users.

It was not until after our team approached the director at two public meetings, brought up our questions during public comment at the April Texas Transportation Commission meeting, and provided a flash drive of complaints we received about TXTag that Director Williams agreed to speak with our team on camera.

The flash drive we provided to TxDOT officials on March 30 contained more than 150 TxTag and toll-related complaints sent to KXAN in recent years. TxDOT officials said they reviewed the complaints as a sample of customer issues and even reached out to some to resolve their issues.

Who are the players behind TxTag now?

Initially in response to questions about continued billing errors with TxTag tollways, Executive Director Williams said some of the billing problems are caused by inadvertent customer behavior.

			Investigator Kelly Wiley gives public comment about TxTag issues KXAN viewers shared at an April 2023 Texas Transportation Commission meeting (KXAN Photo/Josh Hinkle)

Investigator Kelly Wiley gives public comment about TxTag issues KXAN viewers shared at an April 2023 Texas Transportation Commission meeting (KXAN Photo/Josh Hinkle)

“We see a lot of systemic issues that involve customers and we try to get information out to them to say, ‘Hey, you know, these are some things you can do to help make sure that your experience with us goes well,'” Williams said.

The director mentioned, as an example, customers not updating credit card information on their accounts, which can lead to auto pay no longer working and pay-by-mail bills being sent with additional fees.

But records obtained by KXAN also show TxDOT sent a letter in November to Accenture — one of its contractors responsible for tollway back-office system software — which was critical of the company’s handling of an unexpected transaction backlog a month earlier.

The letter stated Accenture “took no communicated actions to troubleshoot the issue until TxDOT directed them.” The state agency also requested a new point of contact because of the issues raised in the letter.

In a statement to KXAN, a spokesperson for Accenture said it stands by its work with TxDOT on its tolling system, which it worked on since September 2021 after the termination of the previous contractor, IBM.

IBM was in charge of the tollway’s back-office system from 2019 to August 2021. Records show during that time, the state penalized the company more than $6 million for not meeting contractual obligations.

“We have standards that those vendors are held accountable, and when they don’t meet those standards, we notify them, and at times they have assessed penalties in their contracts,” Williams said. “We built in these measures to hold those vendors accountable to the job they’re hired to do for the state of Texas.”

In a statement to KXAN, Accenture said it has not had “fines, penalties or financial damages assessed related to its work.”

Records show TxDOT has also had issues with another contractor, TTEC, which handles billing and customer services for the toll system.

According to TxDOT, TTEC has been assessed more than $3 million in liquidated damages. TxDOT’s contract with TTEC states it can assess damages to the company for failing to meet targets and for causing lapses in service.

The agency did not provide records or disclose the exact reasons why it took this step. TTEC officials did not respond to our questions and requested we forward them to TxDOT.

Williams said in his interview with KXAN he receives metrics monthly on how the tollways are performing — and said his office would release those records through the open records process if allowed by law.

Upon receiving our requests for those monthly metrics, the agency asked the Texas Office of Attorney General for an opinion on whether it must release them under Texas’ open records laws.

TxDOT claims these records are exempt from disclosure because of attorney-client privilege and because they contain “internal pre-decisional recommendations” that are exempt from disclosure, according to its letter.

“There’s been tremendous progress that’s been made. But I’m not satisfied. We’ve got to continue to do better. And we’re continuing to look at ways we can do better as an organization to further improve the customer experience, and improve the role in our vendors,” Williams said. “We want those vendors to be working with us in that same — with that same mindset. And, by and large, they do. To be fair, they did. But when they don’t, we notify them and we hold them accountable.”