LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – As the RiverLink toll system finished its first year last December, officials vowed to improve the project’s customer service. They even gave it a name: the “get well plan.”
The debut of Ohio River bridge tolls had been marked by long wait times and thousands of cases of incorrect bills. At the end of 2017, for instance, drivers spent an average of nine minutes before reaching a RiverLink representative on the phone.
But things changed in the first half of 2018. Those calls were answered faster – in less than 15 seconds by the spring – and only a scant number of people eventually gave up, documents show.
That’s just one example of the strides made during the year, said Megan McLain, who as the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s innovative finance manager is the state’s top RiverLink administrator. She also pointed to a new online payment method and faster response times to emails.
“In terms of what we were hoping to fix this year, we’re happy with where customer service levels are,” she said.
Still, there were hundreds of disputed tolls each month this year, according to records obtained through public records requests, while drivers who contacted WDRB News shared stories of billing and other errors.
Michael Calvano said he mailed a check for a toll invoice several days after getting it on June 20, only ten days before it was due. He said his next letter from RiverLink was a collections notice, which usually arrives after two unpaid bills.
RiverLink waived the $30 collections fee but wouldn’t budge on $30 in other late charges, he said. “I was so hopping mad when I got that collections letter,” he wrote in an email to WDRB. “They have the power to prevent your car from being registered so they really had me over a barrel.”
After she moved earlier this year from Louisville to Jeffersonville, Ind., Jennifer Lubi said she signed up for a toll account. But she said there has been “a list of issues,” including getting locked out of her account and having tolls charged at a higher rate than the $1 for frequent bridge crossings.
She is now disputing $680 in tolls she claims she doesn’t owe and has filed a complaint with the Indiana Attorney General’s office and a formal dispute with RiverLink.
“For four months they were billing me quadruple what I should have been billed,” she said.
But Kathy McDonald, who lives in Clarksville, Ind., said she’s experienced few problems with her account and easily meets the 40 crossings needed each month to qualify for the $1-per-trip rate.
While she was initially hesitant to use the I-65 bridges to get to her retail job in St. Matthews, McDonald said her daily commute has been more than cut in half – to about 20 minutes from sometimes as long as 40 minutes.
“Hitting the 40 times is not a big deal for me,” she said. “I do more than that.”
Toll revenue on track
Hate or accept them, RiverLink tolls now are a way of life for drivers crossing the river between Louisville and Clark County, Ind. And even with the glitches, Kentucky and Indiana are taking in more money than projected: $96.5 million in tolls during the year that ended in June, beating estimates of $79.3 million.
The states must meet those projections to pay off debt on the $2.3 billion Ohio River Bridges Project, which resulted in two new river crossings: The Lewis and Clark Bridge between Utica, Ind., and Prospect, Ky., and the Interstate 65 Lincoln Bridge downtown.
Those spans are now tolled along with the I-65 Kennedy Bridge, which was retrofitted as part of the project. Cameras and scanners on the spans identify license plates and pre-paid transponders. Drivers without accounts are billed by mail.
But the technology still doesn’t always work correctly. Some drivers, including state Rep. Al Gentry of Louisville, say they’re using the RiverLink bridges without getting billed.
Gentry told a legislative panel in November that he has crossed the Kennedy and Lincoln bridges between five and 10 times without getting an invoice. “I’ve never received a bill – ever,” he said. “And if I’m not receiving one, how many are we missing?”
He added: “If it’s been a personal experience issue for me, there’s a problem there.”
The companies that operate RiverLink have adjusted bridge lights and moved cameras in order to get clearer photos of license plates, which are manually read by workers. But some photos still can’t be identified, and even when they can, not all license plates are matched with a car’s owner.
So far in 2018, a WDRB data analysis shows, Indiana and Kentucky are able to match a license plate photo with the correct billing address about 88 percent of the time. But that rate drops to about 69 percent for license plates from all other states.
In their efforts to collect unpaid tolls, the states freeze drivers’ vehicle registrations in Kentucky and Indiana if drivers haven’t responded to several attempts to pay. Thus far, about 43,000 people with registration holds have paid $3 million in tolls and fees, McLain said.
Overall, she said, about seven percent of potential toll revenue can’t be collected as a result of license plates that can’t be clearly read, car owners who can’t be found or bills that aren’t paid.
But McLain said that missed revenue is on par with other cashless toll roads. And, she added, the benefit of keeping traffic moving is worth some money falling through the cracks.
“It’s a trade-off, absolutely,” she said. “It’s about what we expected.”
As the year comes to a close, the states are preparing to name a new advisor to oversee the work of toll operator Kapsch TrafficCom.
The Indiana Finance Authority agreed last week to hire Kansas City, Mo.-based HNTB Corp., replacing Parsons Transportation Group. The Kentucky-Indiana Joint Board, the four-person panel that ultimately oversees RiverLink, is expected to approve the contract on Tuesday.
RiverLink also changed in behind-the-scenes ways in 2018, including the gradual migration of call center and other support jobs from Austin, Texas to Muncie, Indiana.
When toll operator Kapsch TrafficCom bid for the work, it proposed using a subcontractor’s Austin call center because it is “an existing facility and provides the project with both schedule and cost benefits.”
But that subcontractor, Municipal Services Bureau, got off to a rocky start once tolling began, with average call wait times exceeding one hour. Over time, the bulk of the call center jobs have moved to MSB parent company Navient Corp.’s facility in Muncie, some 60 miles northeast of Indianapolis.
In September, the most recent month with available data, there were six customer service agents in Texas and 47 in Muncie. By comparison, there were six of those positions at walk-up centers in Louisville and Jeffersonville.
As a result, Indiana now reaps a greater benefit from the customer service jobs created by the Louisville area toll system than does Kentucky, even though the states equally fund Kapsch’s $41.5 million contract.
McLain acknowledged that when the contract was granted, the states expected the Texas call center would handle most of the work. Shifting those jobs is a “vendor decision that they have to make for the efficiency of their operations,” she said.
Kentucky state Rep. Steve Riggs, D-Louisville, said having those jobs in central Indiana is “a step in the right direction,” but he’d prefer more of them in the Louisville area.
“The taxpayers here put up half of the cost, so I’m sure we’d like to see more of the benefits from the arrangement,” Riggs said.
State Sen. Ernie Harris, R-Prospect, disagreed, saying that the states signed a contract that lets private firms make their own decisions. There is “nothing devious” about where the jobs are located, he said.
Even so, officials weighed moving the call center jobs to the Louisville area as soon as next year, WDRB News reported this month. They eventually chose not to pursue that plan.
“We don’t have plans to do that in the near future. We don’t have plans to do that imminently,” McLain said. “Everything’s still on the table, but it’s not a short-term plan.”