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) — Declan O’Scanlon thinks he’s received around a dozen unjustified toll violations from New Jersey toll authorities, and the state senator believes he’s not alone.
O’Scanlon said his constituents are reporting similar issues to his office. They’re getting hit with fees for not paying tolls, despite having an existing toll pass account, with E-ZPass, that is supposed to help them pay automatically and with ease.
“Then you have to make a call, frequently be on hold for quite a bit of time and go through the frustration of making the case that: ‘Hey, guys, I’ve got an account in good standing,’” he said. “That’s not fair to drivers. Our system should not be designed to work against people that are obeying the law and have billable accounts in good standing.”
Those complaints may sound familiar to hundreds of Texans who use cashless transponders, like TxTag, attached to their windshield so they can speed through toll stations and pay automatically with an account. KXAN has reported on TxTag billing and vendor operation problems for nearly a decade. But the problems don’t stop in New Jersey and Texas; other states like Florida and Maryland have also dealt with similar issues.
‘Not going to stop’
To create a solution in New Jersey, O’Scanlon authored legislation requiring New Jersey toll authorities double-check the E-ZPass customer database for a billable account before issuing a violation to a driver.
“The system should not be designed to treat drivers, you know, as if they don’t count or as cash machines,” he said.
A spokesperson for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority said there are already several checks built into the system to prevent unfair or incorrect violations. For example, the spokesperson said it checks the E-ZPass database for customers in-state but also in other states where E-ZPass operates. If no account is found, it also checks the motor vehicle agency information for the vehicle against the E-ZPass customer database.
After that, if drivers still believe there’s an error, they can fill out a form on the E-ZPass website that allows them to only pay the amount of the toll, an NJTA spokesperson said.
“I’m going to hear over the next six months whether this is effective or not, and whether we have to go back and do something else,” O’Scanlon said. “Because if it’s not effective, I’m not going to stop until we figure it out.”
O’Scanlon said he believes his bill, which became law earlier this year, will ensure these processes are working as described by NJTA.
But what happens when the companies running the toll system’s software fall short of expectations? Several states, including Texas, have reported vendor software problems that have led to thousands of incorrect bills and fees.
The ‘problem’ with software
New Jersey and South Jersey Turnpike Authorities both contract with Conduent State and Local Solutions to operate their E-ZPass transponder systems. That company may be familiar to Texans, since it took over TxTag’s software, customer service and billing operations for several years beginning in 2017.
Two years before that, KXAN investigators began reporting on billing and customer service issues with another vendor, Xerox. In 2015, the Texas Department of Transportation refunded millions to its customers because of mistakes and by August of that year, the state agency released an internal audit giving Xerox an overall unsatisfactory assessment — noting the problems stemmed from a transition to a new billing software.
Once Xerox was out and with Conduent at the reins, drivers still reported problems to KXAN. By 2018, KXAN learned the state of Texas had assessed more than $2 million in financial penalties against Conduent for not meeting performance metrics.
The same year, Florida drivers began reporting similar billing and customer service issues with its SunPass system — also operated by Conduent. At the time, the toll authority there pointed to a “system upgrade” that took longer than expected as the cause of many of the reported problems. This led two U.S. Senators — Bill Nelson, D-Florida, and Gary Peters, D-Michigan — to call for a federal investigation of the company over what they called a “pattern” of toll problems.
We have reached out to the Federal Trade Commission for an update on that request.
In response to questions KXAN sent to Conduent, a spokesperson for the company emphasized it was an “industry leader,” winning awards in states across the nation in recent years.
According to Conduent, it processes 12 million tolling transactions every day, or more than 4.3 billion annually. It manages approximately 48% of the transactions of the top 10 U.S. tolling agencies and remains “committed to providing excellent customer service and reliable, accurate and high-quality electronic toll collection systems,” according to a statement from the spokesperson.
In Texas, by 2019, new vendors began taking over toll operations from Conduent.
A spokesperson for Conduent told KXAN, “We fulfilled the terms of our previous contract with TxDOT and were disappointed to not be selected to continue our work with the agency.”
Problems with the system persisted, and by 2021, TxDOT terminated its contract with one of the new vendors, which was building a new back-office software system for TxTag — citing a failed system upgrade that it says left customers with overcharges.
Ed Anderson, an Information, Risk & Operations Management professor at the University of Texas, said these types of technology and software issues are not uncommon.
He described around 80% of large government projects as being either late, over budget or both, and he said information systems — particularly software implementation — only amplify that statistic.
“With software, in particular, it’s thought to be so malleable — easy to change afterwards —there’s a tendency to do actually less planning and think, ‘Well, if we’ve got a problem, we can just fix it along the way.’ But it’s more like a building than you think,” he said. “So, if you’re building a building, and you realize, ‘Man, that story is, you know, two feet short!’ It’s hard to fix on the fly, and so much better to figure things out ahead of time.”
Anderson acknowledged many of the vendors operating tolling systems do so in multiple states across the country, but it’s not always a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to implementation.
“It’s harder than it looks because — even down to the fact that, it’s going to sound silly, but our license plates in Texas are different from those in, say, Michigan,” Anderson said, using the example of some states allowing license plates with both zeros and the letter “O” — which could get confused during processing by a toll software. “And somehow, if you have one package of software, it’s got to be able to handle all of that.”
Plus, he said, new vendors are often trying to keep some existing features — and data — intact.
“We’ve done it the same in Massachusetts and Michigan and Wisconsin and Idaho — but then there’s the issue that we’ve got to work with these information systems that are already there, and then somehow we have to cobble them to work together. Typically, that’s where the bulk of the problems occur,” Anderson said.
Anderson noted that when problems arise on a project, communication with the vendor is key.
“You don’t get what you pay for,” he said. “You get what you manage.”
‘Harder than it looks’
In the last three years, KXAN has received more than 150 tips from viewers complaining of continued billing or other toll-related problems.
In April 2023, TxDOT’s Executive Director Marc Williams told KXAN the latest vendors operating the TxTag system were doing an “exceptional job” working through problems left behind by the previous vendor.
“There’s been tremendous progress that’s been made. But I’m not satisfied — we’ve got to continue to do better,” Williams said.
However, KXAN investigators discovered these new vendors have already faced reprimands from TxDOT. It assessed over $3 million in financial penalties against the current billing and customer service vendor, as of January.
KXAN also obtained a letter of warning sent by TxDOT to another current vendor handling tolling operations software that noted “deficiencies in the operations and leadership areas” of its work. Within two months of sending the letter, TxDOT said it was satisfied with the vendor’s improvement.
In New Jersey, O’Scanlon threatened similar actions if problems persist.
“You can disqualify these entities from bidding in the future; you can have monetary impacts that are multiples of the fines and fees collected,” O’Scanlon said. “If we have to hit them in the pocketbook, we will.”
He said his office will be monitoring calls from E-ZPass customers over the next six months before pushing for that “next step.”
“I’m hoping that there’s a simple fix here, and that they will implement it, and we’ll be done,” he said.
KXAN investigators also looked at other initiatives in states where billing problems have plagued toll drivers over the years.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis introduced a toll relief program last year. Because of the state’s budget surplus, a record $22 billion, DeSantis said the SunPass Savings Program would allow drivers with 40 or more tolls per month to see as much as 20% or more in discount credits on their bills.
The governor did not mention the billing and customers services issues faced by SunPass drivers in years past, but in a press conference last fall, he said this was a way for Florida to invest in its residents.
His office later announced more than 1.1 million drivers received nearly $37 million in savings in the program’s first month, January 2023.
Nearly 1,000 miles north of Florida, a recent legislative audit in Maryland found thousands of drivers in that state had been potentially overcharged over a 10-month period.
Maryland General Assembly’s Office of Legislative Audits released this audit in March 2023. It analyzed data from toll charges between April 2021 and February 2022. It identified 82,847 customers who were potentially charged more than once for a single trip through a toll facility. The audit also found around 11,488 customers who potentially were charged on a specific bridge in the state — with an estimate of $545,000 in overage fees.
The audit noted in a separate report, published just two months earlier, the Maryland Transportation Authority said its tolling system has a high degree of accuracy with a low error rate. The MDTA report based the claim on a review of a seven-day period of tolling and noted that many errors perceived by the public as system errors were instead “customer-generated activities,” such as improperly mounting their transponder or not having a positive balance in their account.
In response to this MDTA report, the audit stated, “Our special review determined that system errors did occur, in some cases with great frequency.”
‘Not everybody pays heed’
Williams told KXAN many of the problems it still sees with TxTag are related to issues caused by the customer, as well. For example, accounts linked to expired credit cards or out-of-date payment information.
The NJTA spokesperson echoed the concern, saying that in New Jersey, credit card issues led to the majority of violations.
“Their card has either expired, or they’ve reached their credit limit, or for some other reason the credit card company would not authorize a charge to replenish their E-ZPass balance,” the spokesperson explained. “E-ZPass sends out notices when the card on an account is about to expire, but not everybody pays heed.”
O’Scanlon’s law stipulates that customers keep their payment details up-to-date. It also requires the authorities do more outreach to help customers understand what that means. The spokesperson said those efforts are “in the works.”
KXAN asked O’Scanlon if he considered asking for more data from the toll authorities there, as a part of the law. He said he hopes this “first, soft step” will handle the problems.
“But that would be a good way to go at it, if we go the next step,” he said.