LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) – The vast majority of phone calls to customer service agents went unanswered during the first month of Ohio River bridge tolls, while average wait times exceeded one hour, an internal report shows.

Drivers seeking help with their accounts or questions about the RiverLink system that opened in late December simply gave up and abandoned 60 percent of their calls, according to system operator Kapsch TrafficCom’s monthly data for January.

The report, obtained under Kentucky’s open records law, also reveals that just four percent of the nearly 25,000 calls to a Texas call center that month were answered within the “targeted service level” of 30 seconds.

“Customer service is nowhere close to where it needs to be. Quite honestly, it’s unacceptable where it has been,” said Mindy Peterson, a spokeswoman for RiverLink, the toll-bridge network owned by Kentucky and Indiana state governments.

“It’s not what they deserve. It’s not what they expect,” she said, referring to RiverLink customers. “They are spending a lot of time on hold, and it’s been a frustrating process.”

In an interview, Peterson pledged changes that include additional workers at the call center and a streamlined RiverLink website that will make it easier for drivers to address their concerns online.

Complaints over wait times began in December, when Kentucky and Indiana officials announced that tolls would start on three spans between Louisville and Clark County, Ind. -- the Interstate 65 Lincoln and Kennedy bridges downtown and the upriver Lewis and Clark Bridge.

At the time, people were waiting an average of 33 minutes on the phone before reaching call center representatives in Austin, Texas, where Kapsch’s main subcontractor Municipal Services Bureau is based. The Kapsch report and other documents obtained through public records requests show that wait times had been as little as 18 seconds in prior months.

Then tolling started on December 30. On average, it took one hour and four minutes before a call center agent picked up in January.

Overall, for the month, Kapsch reported:

-24,940 calls to RiverLink, up from 21,566 in December

-4,361 calls answered, or about 17 percent (42 percent of December calls were answered)

-4 percent of the calls answered within the “targeted service level” of 30 seconds

RiverLink added a “call back” feature that same month as an alternative to waiting on hold.

Trying to resolve a RiverLink billing issue, Keith Wynne of Peewee Valley said he called the customer service number after he was locked out of his account. He hung up during his first two calls, then waited for 1 ½ hours on his third call before asking to be called back.

When a RiverLink representative finally called back several hours later, Wynne said he was in the middle of eating dinner with his family.

“It’s really inconvenient from a customer standpoint,” he said. “You kind of have to plan your day around calling customer service as opposed to being able to make a quick phone call to get things taken care of.”

Wynne commutes across the Lewis and Clark Bridge for his warehouse industry job in Jeffersonville, Ind. The new bridge has cut his commute from about 30 miles to 10 miles, or a 20-minute drive, he said.

“It’s great, but it’s been somewhat of a hassle dealing with RiverLink and trying to make sure that you can take care of those things,” he said.

Other complaints, documented in emails sent by drivers to WDRB News, allege that customer service representatives promised to call drivers back but failed to do so.

WDRB reporters called the RiverLink customer service number at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday morning. The call was immediately placed in a queue; a recording said representatives were experiencing high call volumes.

The reporters waited on hold until after 11 a.m., when they selected the call back feature. But nearly seven hours after the original call, the station hadn’t yet heard from a representative.

There were 15 agents handling phone calls at the end of December and 20 by the end of January, Peterson said. She described that staffing level as “nowhere close to enough.”

“We weren’t prepared. … We didn’t have the staff in place and then ramping up after you start is a challenge because customer service is a difficult job for people to work. It’s not for everybody.”

She said an additional 10 workers started this week after completing a two-week training class and passing a background checks. By April, plans call for 15 more agents to be hired by April, bringing the total to 45.

The goal is for drivers who call the customer service line to spend no more than one minute on hold. “We are going to keep taking the steps that we need until we can meet that target,” Peterson said.

Kapsch operates two offices in the Louisville area, but Texas is home to the “back office” toll operations, including the main customer service center. In its proposal for the work, Kapsch said its subcontractor Municipal Services Bureau provides support in Austin for toll roads in Florida and Puerto Rico and seven toll networks overall.

A largely redacted contract between Kapsch and the Indiana Finance Authority, which oversaw the procurement on behalf of both states, anticipates it will cost Kapsch $21.4 million to operate and maintain the customer service center in Texas.

Kapsch said in its proposal for the work that having the jobs in Texas “leverages an existing facility and provides the project with both schedule and cost benefits.”

But some Louisville legislators began questioning the arrangement in 2015. At the time, WDRB News reported that a consultant fired by the states, the eTrans Group, had warned Kentucky and Indiana officials of possible “negative public reaction” to well-paying positions created in Texas.

Rep. Steve Riggs, D-Louisville, was among the state lawmakers who raised concerns in 2015. He said in an interview on Tuesday that the amount of time drivers are spending on hold is “absolutely ridiculous.”

“That’s not customer service,” Riggs said. “That’s non-service. And that was one of my fears of outsourcing it like it was called for. I think Kentucky and Indiana employees can do a lot better job than that in terms of customer service.”

Kapsch spokesman Brian McNiff said in a statement that the company is working with teams from both states to improve the overall service to RiverLink customers.

"This progressive improvement is a core value and competency that Kapsch brings to every project, and is engrained in our approach to doing business for all of our customers," he said. "We will continue to work with both states over time on improvement initiatives, with the states providing open and direct performance feedback on a regular basis."

Peterson said the states plan to work under the terms of the contract with Kapsch, with any costs be borne by Kapsch.

“The thing that I want to make very, very clear to anybody who has tried to pick up the phone and call us – We’re sorry,” she said. “It has not been a good experience and it is not OK. … That customer service is not meeting our expectations and it’s leaving our customers frustrated and we want to let them know it is going to get better.”

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