Tech Problem Causing Delays to E-ZPass Accounts in Virginia

The state E-ZPass system and the company running the tunnel tolls said the delayed charges were not lost and will soon be assessed to accounts in batches.

by Dave Forster, McClatchy News Service / April 14, 2014

The latest in a string of hiccups in the technology at the Downtown and Midtown tunnels surfaced this week when motorists learned their toll transactions were not posting to their accounts -- again.

The same thing happened in early March but for a different reason. As they did then, the state E-ZPass system and the company running the tunnel tolls said the delayed charges were not lost and will soon be assessed to accounts in batches.

State Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne voiced frustration Friday at the problems that have cropped up since tolling started Feb. 1 on the tunnels between Portsmouth and Norfolk. He said he has asked Department of Transportation staff to report back to him on what rights the state has under its contract with the private operator to improve things.

"They can't seem to get it right," Layne said. "As a motorist, I think it's unacceptable."

Meanwhile, a Norfolk resident this week noticed an overcharge on her account from a Feb. 13 toll. The charge occurred during a period in which sensors were erroneously reading two-axle vehicles as having a third axle. That triggered a "heavy vehicle" toll, which is $4 during peak hours, rather than $1.

When the problem was discovered in February, Elizabeth River Crossings spokeswoman Leila Rice said that the sensors were tuned and the problem fixed, and that affected accounts were corrected or in the process of being corrected.

However, it appears that in at least this one instance, an account was not fixed, Rice said this week after learning of Dorolyn Alper's case.

"Could a few of them have fallen through the cracks? It sounds like yes," Rice said.

Customer service staff confirmed the Toyota Corolla that Alper drove through the Midtown Tunnel on Feb. 13 was indeed wrongly tolled as a heavy vehicle. Rice said they did not know whether Alper's account was somehow omitted from a batch that Elizabeth River Crossings sent to the state's E-ZPass system in February for credits, or whether it was transmitted but never credited.

The experience made Alper wonder how many other people have erroneous tolls sitting on their accounts but haven't noticed.

"That's just kind of crazy for them to say it was taken care of, and it wasn't for me," she said.

Rice likened an E-ZPass account to credit card statements and said it is ultimately the consumer's responsibility to make sure there are no mistakes.

"A smart consumer will always check their bill to make sure they're billed properly," she said. "We strongly recommend just always checking and double-checking."

Rice said motorists with tunnel tolling problems will get them addressed more quickly if they call Elizabeth River Crossings first - at 855-ERT-ROAD - before trying the state E-ZPass line.

Elizabeth River Crossings has a 58-year contract with the state to run and maintain the tunnels and their tolls, and to oversee construction of a second Midtown Tunnel tube and freeway extension in Portsmouth.

It has a contract with Minnesota-based 3M to provide the tolling technology, including the equipment and software, Rice said. Their agreement requires 3M to meet various tolling accuracy standards for at least three continuous months - and to maintain those standards thereafter.

The minimum accuracy rates include reading an E-ZPass transponder (99.95 percent of the time), getting the vehicle's classification right (99.8 percent), and knowing when a vehicle is passing under a toll gantry (100 percent).

Those standards are about what's expected in the industry today, said C. Michael Walton, a researcher of toll collection technology with the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas at Austin.

With about 94,000 vehicles passing through the tunnels each day, those minimum accuracy rates still allow for dozens to a couple of hundred potential misreads daily.

Rice said each problem with the system restarts the clock on 3M's three-month performance requirement.

"It hasn't even started yet because of the IT issues," she said.

Calls to 3M for comment were not returned.

Most recently, tunnel tolls have not been posting to accounts since April 3. The problem occurred because of a communication breakdown between the computer system at a customer service center on Port Centre Parkway and the roadside system where the tolls are triggered, Rice said.

The state's E-ZPass customer service center sent notices late this week to customers telling them about the delayed transactions. The customer alert attributed the problem to "IT issues" at Elizabeth River Crossings' customer service center.

Rice said staff members hope to have transactions flowing to the E-ZPass system by Sunday morning.

A similar delay in transactions posting to accounts occurred between late February and early March. That situation was caused by a different problem, however.

It was the result of a software change that Elizabeth River Crossings made so the state's E-ZPass system could differentiate between tolls that were read via transponders and those that were recorded by a video system, according to Rice.

©2014 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)