AUSTIN (KXAN) — Auto-payment issues, double billing, incorrect statements and customer service runaround — those are just some of the complaints KXAN has received, by the hundreds, from Texas Department of Transportation toll road and TxTag users.

KXAN has uncovered TxDOT toll system problems for nearly a decade. During that time, the state agency has repeatedly vowed improvement.

In this latest investigative effort, KXAN dedicated more than two dozen journalists to hold TxDOT officials accountable, fight for public records, catalog hundreds of tips and complaints, and sift through thousands of pages of vendor contracts. When TxDOT wouldn’t schedule an interview, we attended public meetings to question the agency’s top brass.

Despite years dealing with vendor hiccups and software glitches, TxDOT officials now say they’re seeing big improvements to TxTag and their toll road system — a system that impacts thousands daily and brings in hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

However, KXAN’s investigation found TxDOT’s road to improvement has been bumpy, vendors have fallen short of expectations at times, stubborn billing issues persist and customer complaints keep rolling in — the latest wave through a viewer crowdsourcing campaign we launched and shared with TxDOT, later learning our efforts were finally getting some of them financial resolution.

Steady stream of complaints

“I can never get into contact by phone with anyone at (TxTag). I’ve had occasions where they double charge,” said one customer in a January 2023 complaint to TxDOT. “Recently, they just stopped charging my card, despite it being in auto pay and having plenty of money to cover $10 charges.”

That’s one of hundreds of complaints sent to TxDOT over the past four years. KXAN obtained an agency complaint log through the Texas Public Information Act. It contained more than 800 submissions. Over half were TxTag and billing-related, and at least 150 referenced auto-billing, double-billing and customer service problems.

When there’s a hitch in TxDOT’s system, the impact can be expansive. Its tolling operation has more than 6 million customers, and the agency has issued more than 3 million TxTag stickers for vehicles since it began.

“This service is by far the most inefficient organization I have ever dealt with,” one driver stated in a January 2022 complaint. “Their billing is never correct. It takes a minimum of three phone calls to get matters resolved.” 

And the complaints come to KXAN, too.

KXAN obtained a log of more than 800 TxTag complaints submitted to TxDOT from January 2020 through January 2023. According to a KXAN analysis of the complaints, roughly 75% were TxTag related, with most of those referencing auto-pay issues, customer service and billing problems and incorrect tolls. About a quarter of the complaints were directed at other regional mobility or toll authorities, or they were not toll related. Source: TxDOT (KXAN Interactive/David Barer)

Over the years, KXAN has received hundreds of emails with TxTag gripes. To get a better sense of current issues facing customers, KXAN asked viewers and readers in early April to send us how TxTag issues have affected them. The result: over 700 responses in a month. 

For the most part, the crowdsourced tips mirror those in TxDOT’s complaint log: double charges, auto pay interruptions, perplexing bills from regional mobility authorities and customer service runarounds.

KXAN shared hundreds of the tips with TxDOT, and the agency said it reached resolutions with some customers.

Marc Williams, TxDOT’s executive director, acknowledged problems caused by a previous contractor and a botched data migration. But he also praised the current companies operating the system.

“These vendors, on balance, I think have been doing an exceptional job working through that,” Williams told KXAN at a recent meeting of the Texas Transportation Commission, where we questioned him after weeks of repeated email and phone requests for an on-camera interview went unmet. “But there are some areas that they’ve got to improve on, and we want to hold them accountable, and we expect them to improve as we expect us, TxDOT, to improve.”

Williams’ praise of the current vendors is a departure from the agency’s stance on previous companies that were fired and fined for performance issues.

The vendor cycle

TxDOT has grappled with vendor performance for a decade. 

The state agency hired Xerox State and Local Solutions in 2013 with a $97 million contract to handle tolling operations, including the TxTag back-office system, billing and customer service. Conduent State and Local Solutions split from Xerox in 2017 and took over the contract, according to a Xerox press release

TxDOT ultimately fined Xerox and Conduent more than $2.4 million between 2014 and 2018 for not meeting performance metrics outlined in the contract.

In a statement to KXAN, Conduent defended its TxTag performance. The company said it fulfilled the terms of its previous contract and was “disappointed” it wasn’t chosen to continue the work. Conduent also said it is an award winning “industry leader” that processes almost 12 million transactions daily for tolling authorities in multiple states.

TxDOT changed its approach to toll system management after parting ways with Conduent. Rather than use one company to manage the major functions of the system, the agency split the workload.

In 2019, TxDOT hired a new vendor to handle customer service and billing, and it awarded a contract to IBM to build a new TxTag “back-office system,” which is the software necessary to “process, track and reconcile” electronic and pay-by-mail transactions, according to TxDOT. 

The transfer from Conduent software to IBM began in mid-November 2020 but quickly hit roadblocks, according to TxDOT. The transition led to “interruptions to customer service activities including delayed reconciliation of (electronic toll collection) transactions, statement processing, (pay-by-mail) billing, and escalations of past due transactions,” TxDOT acknowledged in a recent revenue study. TxDOT said the reconciliation problems associated with the move to IBM’s system have been substantially resolved, according to that study. 

TxDOT terminated its remaining contract with IBM, effective November 2021, and fined the company more than $6 million for not meeting contractual obligations, KXAN previously reported.

IBM ultimately received $72.7 million of the original $85.9 million contract amount, according to TxDOT.

An IBM spokesperson said the company disagreed with TxDOT’s decision.

			TxTag used to use one system for all its needs but has since hired separate vendors for its customer service and billing and its back-office system (KXAN Graphic/Wendy Gonzalez)

TxTag used to use one system for all its needs but has since hired separate vendors for its customer service and billing and its back office system (KXAN Graphic/Wendy Gonzalez)

“The success of any information technology project depends on each of the participants fulfilling its obligations. IBM’s performance on this project has been hampered by the inability of TxDOT to do so,” said the spokesperson. “Despite TxDOT’s failure, IBM’s performance and the system IBM has implemented far exceed operational requirements anticipated when the contract was signed to the benefit of Texas motorists.”

After terminating IBM, TxDOT awarded contracts to two vendors to continue handling its back-office system: SAP NS2 and Accenture, according to records obtained by KXAN.

Internal records obtained by KXAN show Accenture’s work on TxTag in the past year has also been bumpy.

‘Documented deficiencies’

On Nov. 15, 2022, TxDOT sent a letter to Accenture’s managing director to “formally communicate documented deficiencies in the operations and leadership areas of Accenture’s (back-office system) engagement.” 

TxDOT requested “Accenture take steps to address these issues as soon as possible” and said there were “multiple instances of Accenture not exhibiting leadership in resolving (back-office system) issues, as well as not communicating appropriately with TxDOT staff and leadership during efforts to manage BOS operations,” according to the letter.

Problems identified in the letter included failing to attend a critical status call and not responding quickly to TxDOT’s concerns about an unexpected transaction backlog in October 2022. TxDOT requested Accenture provide a new lead and point of contact for its operations and submit evidence of progress within 60 days.

Days later, Accenture’s managing director responded, saying the company was committed to resolving the concerns and continuing to support TxDOT’s “critically important initiatives,” according to a letter obtained by KXAN.

Within about two months, TxDOT sent another letter to Accenture saying it no longer had immediate concerns, and it “appreciated” Accenture’s efforts to fix the issues. Accenture has three contracts valued at $10 million each, according to purchase orders obtained by KXAN.

In an email to KXAN, Accenture defended its work on the TxDOT system.

“We stand by our work with TxDOT on its tolling application system, which we have worked on since September 2021 upon exit of the prior vendor,” the company said. “Customer service and billing operations are not included in our scope, and it is important to note that there have been no fines, penalties or financial damages assessed related to our work.  We work closely and collaboratively with TxDOT to swiftly and satisfactorily address any concerns brought to our attention, and we look forward to continuing to assist TxDOT in its efforts to serve Texas motorists.”

Accenture and SAP NS2 haven’t been assessed any financial damages for their work, according to record requests made by KXAN, but TxDOT has assessed millions in damages against TTEC, the company currently handling billing customer service.

Liquidated damages

As part of the split in workload in its post-Conduent era, TxDOT awarded a five-year contract in 2019 worth more than $145 million to Faneuil Inc. to handle TxTag customer service, billing and the habitual violator program. 

That contract is now under TTEC, after it acquired Faneuil Inc. in 2022.

Since then, TxDOT has assessed over $3.3 million in liquidated damages against TTEC for failing to meet contractual obligations, according to TxDOT. TxDOT did not provide records showing the exact reason for those damages, but KXAN has requested more records that could reveal the cause.

Several issues could trigger liquidated damages, such as technology issues causing lapses in customer service, safety or security lapses, failure to meet quality measures and more, according to TTEC’s contract.

TTEC’s contract also shows TxDOT closely monitors its duties and how well it completes numerous vital tasks. It tracks that performance through “balanced scorecards,” and TTEC’s compensation is “directly linked” to scorecard performance measures.

KXAN requested those performance scorecards, but TxDOT has sought to block their release. The agency argued in a letter to the Texas Office of Attorney General that releasing the scorecards could impact the awarding of future contracts. A blank scorecard was included in TTEC’s contract.

Williams, TxDOT’s chief, told KXAN he also gets monthly vendor performance reports. KXAN requested those reports, but the agency has also sought to block their release and requested a ruling from the Attorney General’s office. TTEC can earn pay incentives or deductions, depending on its performance, but TxDOT said the company has not earned incentives or had its compensation reduced.

			Two of the state’s transportation leaders – Texas Transportation Commission Chair Bruce Bugg (left) and Texas Department of Transportation Executive Director Marc Williams – discuss business at a March 2023 Commission meeting. KXAN questioned Williams in March regarding complaints about TxTag and toll road operations issues. (KXAN Photo/Josh Hinkle)

Two of the state’s transportation leaders – Texas Transportation Commission Chair Bruce Bugg (left) and Texas Department of Transportation Executive Director Marc Williams – discuss business at a March 2023 Commission meeting. KXAN questioned Williams in March regarding complaints about TxTag and toll road operations issues. (KXAN Photo / Josh Hinkle)

Williams praised the latest companies to take over TxTag operations — Accenture, SAP NS2 and TTEC — in his interview. He also said the financial penalties and compliance letter were signs that TxDOT is making sure the system is handled properly.

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

Aside from the statement it sent, Accenture referred all questions to TxDOT, as did TTEC. SAP NS2 did not respond to multiple emails and messages KXAN sent.

While Williams and other TxDOT leaders work to hold their vendors accountable, lawmakers at the State Capitol have filed bills for years that have altered — or attempted to alter — the scope of toll roads, billing and agency accountability.

Shedding light

In 2017, a KXAN investigation found TxDOT sent 2.2 million debtor accounts to a collections agency that added nearly $1 billion in fees to drivers’ accounts. That year, following our report, lawmakers passed SB 312 by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville. The new law capped administrative toll bill fees at $48 per year, but there was disagreement over which tolling entities were bound by the cap.

In 2019, lawmakers passed SB 198, authored by Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown and Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham. The bill addresses “many of the common frustrations and concerns related to toll road billing and payment practices by providing more uniformity, predictability, and fairness to toll billing across the state,” according to a bill analysis.

SB 198 required tolling entities to determine if a customer has an active account connected to a transponder prior to mailing an invoice or notice of unpaid tolls or charging an administrative fee. It also requires tolling entities to inform customers of a possible transponder problem if there are more than 10 misreads in a month.

Also in 2019, multiple lawmakers including Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, and Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, passed HB 803. The law increases the financial transparency of toll entities by requiring them to post and prominently display annual reports, like these, on their websites .

Those are just a few of the bills that have passed, but many others aimed at reforming the toll road system died in the Legislature in recent years. 

For example, SB 756, written by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, and Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, was filed in 2021 and would have ended tolls on highways once all the costs and bonds were paid off, or enough money was set aside to pay the bonds. That bill never got a hearing, but it has been resurrected in the current session in HB 3828 by Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe — to end tolls on highways.

Separately, HB 2991 by Brian Harrison, R-Midlothian, would revise toll collection, enforcement fees and the imposition of a civil penalty.

And another bill by Rep. James Talarico, D-Austin, HB 4231, would stop all toll charges for a year ending Sept. 1, 2024. Talarico has said the bill would provide relief from inflation.

And HB 2170, by Rep. Bobby Guerra, D-Mission, would require toll project entities to notify electronic toll collection account holders if their payment card was declined or couldn’t be processed. Toll bill envelopes would also have to indicate the document is a bill.

KXAN gave many lawmakers overseeing transportation more to consider as they pass legislation related to toll road operations. In April, KXAN provided every lawmaker on the House and Senate Transportation Committees with packets summarizing the complaints and tips we received since 2020.

Rep. Canales, chair of the House Transportation Committee, got one of the packets. He said he appreciated the information and putting a spotlight on these issues.

“Anything that sheds light on the reality of what the problem is” is a good thing, Canales said. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Like Canales’ and other legislators’ efforts to fix flaws in the toll road system, KXAN’s investigative work continues. Numerous public information requests for vendor information that KXAN has filed remain pending, since the agency has sought to block the release of those records. We also continue to receive tips and complaints about the system.

KXAN will continue with follow up reports when new records become available and as laws shaping the toll system pass and fail.

For any questions or issues with your TxTag bill or account, please reach out to TxTag first. You can call their customer service line at 1-888-468-9824, chat with a representative online, submit an online inquiry, or stop by in-person at one of their customer service centers.