LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The first exhaustive analysis of RiverLink revealed 10 “high risk” concerns with Ohio River bridge tolls, including the amount of effort drivers spend paying bills and resolving other issues.
It warns that a “non-standard” network of computers and servers for processing tolls could cause employee “misunderstanding and misreporting.” Kentucky and Indiana ought to address the technology when they seek a new operations contract in the coming years, a consultant recommends.
The evaluation also raised questions about the accuracy of license plate photos, noting that some images were reviewed by just one person, not the two workers required in the project guidelines. And it details problems with other states refusing to provide billing data – meaning some drivers can’t be located, much less billed.
Officials from Kentucky and Indiana are reviewing the “risk assessment report” by HNTB Corp., their liaison with RiverLink operator Kapsch TrafficCom. The states required the report to be done within six months after hiring HNTB last December.
WDRB News obtained the document, which was completed in April, in a public records request. The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet initially declined to release it, saying it was a “living document.”
The agency later provided it after WDRB appealed the denial to the Kentucky Attorney General’s office, which decides open records disputes.
HNTB graded its findings based on whether they pose a low, medium or high risk to RiverLink “revenues, cost and/or public perception.” A high risk, for example, could lead to lost revenue of $500,000 or more—and possibly $10 million in an “extremely remote” scenario.
HNTB didn’t determine how much money the potential risks could cost.
Overall, 67 of the report’s 133 findings – or roughly half -- had no or low risk to the toll system, while 56 findings, or 42 percent, had a medium risk.
The initial conclusions show that “most of the system is working really well,” said Megan McLain, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s innovative finance manager. She said officials from both states are doing more research before setting priorities to act on.
“That’s our plan: To use this assessment to make real improvements to the system that is already working very well,” she said.
HNTB labelled “customer effort” a high-risk area, noting that RiverLink representatives sometimes take five days to respond to emails. That is despite a goal of three days and an average one-day response time listed on the toll system’s website.
Other steps can cause confusion or give call center employees unnecessary work. For instance, when customers submit a toll dispute online, they must download a PDF, fill it out, resave the form and then attach it to an email.
“This could result in customers simply opting to calling (sic) the call center to file a dispute,” HNTB wrote in the report.
McLain said customer service has improved “a great deal” since RiverLink started and remains one of the project’s top priorities.
Customer complaints dogged RiverLink after it began in late 2016. Call wait times that once topped an hour – on average – were down to 45 seconds in June, the most recent data show.
Meanwhile, the toll system is exceeding its revenue projections. It took in nearly $112 million during the fiscal year that ended in June, beating estimates of about $97 million. The states split that money, using it to pay down construction debt and other project-related costs.
HNTB said the RiverLink system is “stable” and operating according to the states’ contractual requirements. The scanners and antennae that line the bridges, capturing vehicle information needed to assess tolls, are “functioning well,” it concluded.
In its general findings, HNTB said RiverLink needs to improve vehicle image review and the process of looking up the names and addresses of vehicles that use the bridges.
Out-of-state drivers were located at a 68 percent rate during the first six months of 2019, Kapsch reports show. By comparison, Kentucky and Indiana drivers were located and billed 94 percent of the time.
In addition, some states didn’t share any information about drivers with RiverLink. In 2018, for example, Iowa didn’t respond to more than 19,000 requests from a Kapsch contractor for details about who owned vehicles that crossed the toll bridges.
As a result, no invoices were sent. No tolls were collected.
Among other things, HNTB also looked at:
RiverLink is operated by a web of contractors ultimately hired and overseen by a four-person “joint board” of Kentucky and Indiana government officials. HNTB says the states’ $41.5 million contract with Kapsch has “certain areas that lack specificity,” including how Kapsch interacts with Louisville-based C2 Strategic Communications, which the states hired for RiverLink marketing and communications. Mindy Peterson, a C2 employee, is the main spokesperson for RiverLink.
HNTB says “additional clarity would be helpful” in determining where Kapsch’s role ends and C2’s begins. The report notes that the C2 contract has few specific “deliverables,” allowing the firm to adapt to RiverLink’s needs “but at the expense of the ability of the states to budget for marketing costs over the long term.”
HNTB, which the Indiana Finance Authority hired on the states’ behalf last December, also took its own contract to task. Its scope of work is “very broad in nature, but there are few specific deliverables listed in the contract.” While such flexibility is useful, HNTB determined, it makes “budgeting for the ongoing costs … difficult.”
Through four state agencies, Kentucky and Indiana handle much of RiverLink’s management in house and, unlike some other toll roads, don’t have a toll authority. Outside contractors let the states rely on the “collective expertise of consulting staff,” but “it prohibits the states from building internal expertise and distances them from potentially critical decisions,” HNTB says.
It found that working on “important decisions is particularly challenging for RiverLink because it is a bi-state partnership. There are several instances around the country where multiple agencies coordinate with each other to operate toll facilities, but the consultant team could not find another example of a bi-state partnership,” the report concluded.
HNTB dismissed major governance changes, but it did recommend that Kentucky and Indiana consider a state-owned, local call center with a project office. That work is now done in Austin, Texas and Muncie, Indiana, but the states have considered a move before.
McLain said a new call center in the Louisville area could be part of a future contract to operate RiverLink. Kapsch’s contract runs through 2023, but the states plan to seek new proposals by mid-2020, she said.
“It’s definitely one of the items we’re looking at, particularly for the future,” she said.
If drivers don’t pay their RiverLink bills, Kentucky and Indiana by law can withhold annual vehicle registrations until the accounts are settled. That tactic let the states collect more than $4 million last year.
RiverLink representatives don’t have a similar mechanism to force drivers from other states to pay. As WDRB reported this year, the states had not taken legal action or any other steps to recoup overdue tolls and fees from the roughly 129,000 out-of-state drivers who ignored RiverLink notices in 2018.
The HNTB report shows that Kapsch is developing an “enforced enhancement strategy.” McLain said some suggestions include using a collections agency and “trying to do things in addition to the vehicle registration holds.”
“But we’re not far enough along in our discussions for me to imply that we’re planning to implement any of those at this point.”