SUNDAY EDITION | Call wait times climb as RiverLink nears one-year mark

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The easiest way for Tim Wolz to cross the Ohio River from his home in New Albany, Ind., is to take the John F. Kennedy Bridge, even though it means paying a toll.

But Wolz, the men’s soccer coach at Midway College near Lexington, Ky., said he no longer uses the Kennedy on his commute. Frustrated by the high-tech toll network that started in late 2016, he drives several miles farther and enters Kentucky on the toll-free Sherman Minton Bridge instead.  

Wolz claims he gave up after spending hours trying to get billing mistakes fixed, including a frequent-crossing discount that repeatedly wasn’t applied to his account.

“It’s just to the point now that I’d rather spend the extra gas going around than I would sitting in line or waiting on the phone,” he said.

RiverLink, the cashless network of Ohio River toll bridges, appears to be on pace to meet toll collection goals as its first year comes to a close. By that measure, the project is succeeding.

Yet its rollout and inaugural year have been marked by the types of customer service hassles familiar to Wolz and other drivers: Late fees that aren’t owed.  Bridge trips that don’t appear on customer accounts. Long wait times to get complaints resolved. Tolls charged to people who say they’ve never crossed the bridges.

After average hold times at a Texas call center soared to more than one hour, toll officials added more staff and promised improvements. It worked. During the summer, documents show, call agents were answering phones in less than a minute.

But those changes haven’t lasted. Drivers were waiting significantly longer this fall to reach RiverLink representatives by phone, while half of the calls were simply abandoned, according to a WDRB News review of internal reports obtained through public records requests.

At the same time, the monthly summaries from toll system operator Kapsch TrafficCom show that the RiverLink workforce has declined to its lowest levels since the first months of tolling.

In October, Kapsch reported:   

  • Average wait times of more than 12 minutes, an increase of nearly 10 minutes from September.
  • 60,938 calls made to RiverLink agents, more than twice as many from the previous month.  Less than one in three calls was answered.
  • 78 people working on the project. After peaking at 126 employees in May, staffing levels have steadily declined.

Kentucky and Indiana state governments ultimately oversee the RiverLink network. They hired Kapsch, which subcontracted with Municipal Services Bureau of Austin to run a call center in Texas, but it has since added call representatives in Puerto Rico and Muncie, Ind.

Officials with the two companies declined or did not respond to interview requests. But Mindy Peterson, a public relations executive whose firm represents RiverLink on behalf of the states, acknowledged that call center and other customer issues have “frustrated” drivers.

“We once again are seeing very high customer service needs and we are having people again spending way too much time on the phone, way too much time waiting for a response,” she said. “And that’s not the customer service we want to deliver.”

In all, she said, 62 RiverLink agents are answering calls and 20 more are in a training class. The most working at any one time has been around 72.

In its October report, Kapsch said the spike in calls coincided with a plan to freeze the registrations of Kentucky and Indiana drivers with unpaid tolls, and a glitch that erroneously sent more than 5,000 drivers bills with late fees.

At the same time, Kapsch noted, the aftermath of Hurricane Irma kept a Puerto Rico facility from returning to full-staff until mid-October.

The company’s report says staffing levels “are continuously being analyzed due to the significant increase of calls” and other tasks. A plan to address service levels at the call center is “forthcoming,” it says.

Peterson said RiverLink officials also will investigate how a second batch of about 8,000 incorrect invoices was mailed to drivers in November.

“Everything is being reviewed,” she said. “We’re taking a look at all quality control. Why did quality control not prevent this instance from happening? What can we do to ensure that this is not going to happen again?”

The attorneys general in Kentucky and Indiana have fielded more than 100 RiverLink complaints. The Louisville-based Better Business Bureau has received 62 complaints, most of which concern billing and collections, said Bruce Gadansky, the organization’s vice president of operations.

Because all-electronic tolling is unique, Gadansky said it’s hard to compare those complaints with grievances against other types of businesses. And he noted that hundreds of thousands of cars cross the bridges at different time.

“While the numbers (of complaints) are relatively small in perspective, there are still errors that are occurring and people are being affected by it,” he said.

Without toll booths, RiverLink uses cameras and scanners to read license plates and identify pre-paid transponders linked to an account. Drivers without accounts are billed by mail.

Bridge crossings with transponders are not increasing as quickly as the states want, averaging 61 percent on weekdays and 45 percent on weekends, according to the most recent data.

Estimates predict vehicles with transponders will make up 65 percent of all trips across the river by next year and 80 percent by 2030.

RiverLink officials have urged more drivers to start using transponders, a move they believe would reduce many of the customer service problems associated with bill-by-mail tolling.

The devices also provide the lowest toll rates -- $2 per crossing for a passenger car, compared with $4 for vehicles that aren't registered.

“All-electronic tolling is a very efficient and effective system for the people that are part of the system,” Peterson said.

Traffic and revenue

Kentucky and Indiana spent $2.3 billion to add two new Ohio River bridges in the Louisville area, reinforce the Kennedy Bridge and replace much of the downtown interchange where Interstates 64, 65 and 71 meet.

To pay for the project, they added tolls to the Kennedy, the adjacent Abraham Lincoln Bridge and the Lewis and Clark Bridge between Prospect, Ky., and Utica, Ind. Drivers began paying to cross the three spans late last December.

Before the toll bridges opened, consultants hired by the states predicted an increase in vehicles seeking to avoid the toll bridges and use the toll-free Interstate 64 Minton and the Clark Memorial Bridge downtown.

By 2018, the consultants said, 110,500 vehicles per day would use the toll bridges. By 2023, that would climb to 117,330.

During 2017, average daily traffic has ranged from a low of 72,400 in January to a June high of 87,980, according to a WDRB News analysis of monthly traffic data provided by the states.

RiverLink exceeded projections by taking in more than $35 million through June, according to data provided to reporters over the summer. Kapsch, however, told the states in the reports that it collected $24 million during that time.

And a press release from October said the toll system brought in $56 million during the first nine months of the year, while data from the Kapsch shows slightly more than $39 million.

Peterson said the figures are different because the Kapsch data doesn’t include revenue paid from other systems in the E-ZPass network.

Even so, toll revenue will need to increase sharply in the years ahead to meet projections: $97 million in 2019, $115 million in 2021 and more than $130 million by 2024.

“I think both states feel very confident in meeting those numbers,” she said.

Others, like Louisville businessman Dan Borsch, are more skeptical after observing the initial traffic figures.

“We’re a year in,” said Borsch, who co-founded the group Say No to Bridge Tolls, which fought the original tolling proposals on the project . “There doesn’t seem to be a huge prospect for the large increases of traffic that they predicted.”

Kentucky will use toll revenue to pay off debt on money it borrowed for construction. Indiana taps its share of toll funds to help make payments to private companies in charge of the Lewis and Clark Bridge under a public-private partnership deal.

If the projections aren’t met, Borsch said, “I’m concerned it’s not going to generate the revenue needed to pay it back.”

Reach reporter Marcus Green at 502-585-0825mgreen@wdrb.com, on Twitter or on Facebook. Copyright 2017 WDRB News. All rights reserved.

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