WDRB INVESTIGATION: How Louisville's new bridge toll system ran out of transponders
Hours away from the start of tolling, drivers already had blown past the goal for transponders set by the states’ marketing consultants, rapidly depleting the inventory ordered in early 2016, WDRB News has found.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Less than two weeks after Kentucky and Indiana began charging drivers to cross the new Ohio River bridges, the high-tech toll system called RiverLink hit a snag.
It ran out of transponders.
Supplies of the free, windshield-mounted stickers had been dwindling even before tolls started on December 30. People waited up to an hour-and-a-half at customer service centers and jammed phone lines.
On December 29, in a final reminder of the all-electronic toll network set to start the next day, project spokeswoman Mindy Peterson told reporters that “more than 150,000 RiverLink transponders have been ordered.” Asked if RiverLink had a sufficient amount to meet demand, she said: “We do.”
But she also warned that amount might not last well into January.
Indeed, on the eve of tolling, drivers already had blown past the goal for transponders set by the states’ marketing consultants, rapidly depleting the inventory ordered in early 2016, WDRB News has found.
On January 2, tolling officials announced that transponders were running low. Eleven days later, they were gone.
In hindsight, Peterson said, RiverLink should have had more transponders on hand. But she noted that the states were following the recommendations of several different consultants that believed 154,700 devices were enough to last through the start of tolling.
“Should it have been front loaded? Probably so,” she said. “But we also said this should be the number for the year, and seeing where we were at the end of November, there was no reason to think we were in danger of running out of these transponders.”
As a result, thousands of drivers continue to wait for their transponders nearly one month after tolls began. It’s one of several hiccups for RiverLink, alongside reports of incorrectly classified tolls and difficulties reaching customer service representatives.
Drivers asked for 70,000 transponders from the time they were available in July until the end of November, according to RiverLink data. There were 100,000 orders in December alone.
The states expected a rush on transponders as people sought to sign up for RiverLink. Accounts with prepaid transponders offer the lowest rate -- $2 per crossing the Interstate 65 Lincoln and Kennedy bridges, and the upriver Lewis and Clark Bridge.
After the transponders ran out, RiverLink let drivers who had requested them still qualify for the $2 rate.
“If you’re going to find a problem with a new tolling system, I would argue this is the one that you want to have because nobody is being hurt,” Peterson said.
Keith Reesor doesn’t see it that way. Reesor, who lives in Clark County, Ind., and crosses the Ohio River on the I-65 toll bridges each weekday, said he hasn’t received a transponder from an order last month.
Reesor works in the paint shop at the University of Louisville’s Belknap Campus. He said commuting across the river to work means his family will spend more each year on tolls than on property taxes.
So Reesor is counting on RiverLink’s frequent-driver discount -- $1 per crossing, as long as he makes the required 40 trips per month – to keep his toll bills low. For now, without a transponder, he is relying on cameras to accurately capture his license plate and record each crossing.
But there’s one problem: Reesor says that’s not happening.
He said he has noticed discrepancies when checking his RiverLink account online. For example, in some cases, trips to work in the morning have shown up, while those heading north on the Lincoln back home have not.
RiverLink has acknowledged that it sometimes takes days for customers’ accounts to be updated. Reesor, however, said some of his trips aren’t posting.
“A lot of days they don’t get me going across the river,” he said. “They say I haven’t crossed it—and I have.”
Reesor believes a transponder would help RiverLink more accurately track his use of the toll bridges. Instead, he said, he has made unnecessary trips in an effort to meet the frequent-user threshold for January.
“It’s been three years in the making,” Reesor said. “They should have had all the bugs fixed and everything else, as far as I’m concerned.”
Transponder shortages rare
Thus far, drivers have asked for more than 200,000 transponders -- 164,000 free, local RiverLink stickers and nearly 37,000 RiverLink E-ZPass transponders, which also work on toll roads in 16 other states.
RiverLink -- the system created and ultimately overseen by the two state governments -- says the 154,700 extra local transponders ordered on December 16 began arriving in batches on January 20 and should be distributed by mid-February. That would bring the total number of free local transponders in stock to more than 309,000.
Peterson stresses that the shortage was brief and says it’s not likely to ever happen again. Still, it’s rare for a toll road to be unable to provide transponders to customers, according to a review of several U.S. toll roads. In response to questions about transponder use, none of the agencies overseeing roads in Colorado, Texas, Florida and Illinois could cite examples of inventory running dry.
There have been “very isolated” cases of shortages, but those largely occurred when the technology was emerging years ago, said Neil Gray, government affairs director at the International Bridge, Tunnel & Turnpike Association.
In the Dallas area, the North Texas Tollway Authority moved to all-electronic tolling in 2010 and monitors distribution of its TollTag transponders weekly, spokesman Michael Rey said in an email.
“I know of no time that we have come close to running out of tags,” he said.
Florida toll roads that use the SunPass transponder offer the devices in thousands of pharmacies, supermarkets and other locations, said Chad Huff, spokesman for Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise.
“We have distribution outlets all over the place, so that’s never been a problem,” he said in an interview.
(Kentucky and Indiana failed to deliver on a promise to place transponders in grocery stores, gas stations and other retail stores by the time tolling started. Peterson said the retail program now is expected to start this spring.)
Relying on consultants’ estimates
When RiverLink first ordered transponders one year ago, it relied on a consultant’s projections.
The states had hired Computer Aid Inc., as their toll adviser in 2013. In February 2014, the company estimated that 154,700 local transponders would be needed each year for four years.
Kentucky and Indiana later removed Computer Aid after discovering a potential conflict of interest between one of the company’s employees and Kapsch TrafficCom, the firm the states chose to operate the toll system.
The states also fired their next toll adviser, replacing the eTrans Group with Parsons Transportation Group of Pasadena, Calif.
A Parsons spokeswoman referred questions to RiverLink, which confirmed that Parsons reviewed and agreed with the 2014 transponder estimate from Computer Aid.
In an interview, RiverLink’s Peterson said there was no reason to change the consultants’ recommendation. But she acknowledged some “difficulty in trying to come up with that number.”
“We have a few different things going on: We have a brand new tolling system, we have folks who have never been introduced to all-electronic tolling … we have a brand new bridge for a route that has never existed,” she said, referring to the Lewis and Clark Bridge connecting the Gene Snyder Freeway in Kentucky and Indiana 265.
“So when you have so many of those unknowns entering an equation, it makes for an equation that is not always going to be the most accurate,” she said.
The demand for transponders far exceeds a goal of distributing 70,000 transponders set forth in a 2015 memo to the states from marketing consultants New West of Louisville and California-based Wilson, Sparling & Associates.
In the memo, obtained under Indiana’s public records law, the consultants urged state officials in 2015 to develop a promotional campaign that would give drivers an incentive to open RiverLink accounts early. They noted that similar programs had been successful on other toll roads.
Offering bonuses such as toll credits to people who sign up early “can accelerate the process of account openings prior to the approach of opening day thus reducing queues, wait times, system overload, extra expense, aggravated customers and bad press,” the consultants wrote.
New West principal Carl Brazley said the program was one of several ideas being considered at the time. New West officials did not respond to a question about how many of its proposals the states rejected.
Asked why Kentucky and Indiana chose not to pursue their own consultants’ recommendation, Peterson said the states believed it would have been too costly to administer and present other logistical challenges.
She explained: “They said, ‘We’re not going to do that. We’re going to spend our effort on getting folks ready for the start of tolling and making sure everybody’s aware.’”
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