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Toll flaws persist
Watchdog groups say tollway has done nothing to fix violations uncovered months ago
By Joseph Ryan | Daily Herald Staff

Cars fly through the Open Road Tolling lanes on the Northwest Tollway in Des Plaines. The barrier-free tolls have made it easier for drivers, but problems persist in the system's violation system.

 

Mark Black | Staff Photographer

Open Road Tolling lanes on the I-90 Northwest Tollway in Elgin..

 

Mark Black | Staff Photographer

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Published: 4/19/2008 8:42 PM

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Problems continue to dog the Illinois tollway's violation system, leading drivers to flood the agency's phone lines and leaving no clear idea of how many scofflaws are on the roads.

And lawmakers' efforts to make the aggressive fine system more consumer friendly are meeting resistance from tollway officials, several months after a Daily Herald investigation revealed systemic problems.

But that's just what's needed, some suburban lawmakers, transportation experts and watchdog groups insist.

"What we are seeing is that there are flaws in the system, and instead of doing what is right, (the tollway) is not doing anything," said Terry Pastika, director of the Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center.

Among the issues:

• Tollway officials still have no statistical information on how many drivers don't pay tolls.

• Software problems differentiating certain license plates continue to produce thousands of bogus violations.

• The tollway has not changed notification policies criticized by watchdog groups and some lawmakers.

• The tollway continues to dig through a 13-month delay in sending out violation notices.

• Calls for a payment plan system or other types of reform have been rebuffed.

Tollway officials defend the system, saying it is the only means to ensure drivers pay tolls under the barrier-free Open Road Tolling. And they say erroneous fines can be easily cleared up over the phone or through an administrative appeal.

"The general public is getting very frustrated with people who violate," says tollway spokesman Mike King. "Making it easier for someone to not pay is often met with a backlash."

The agency is resisting reforms proposed by lawmakers because they say the various changes are unnecessary or could hamper toll enforcement.

But one transportation expert says the tollway must improve consumer trust in the system, especially as it considers "congestion pricing" that would hike tolls during rush hour to cut traffic and raise money.

"For the public to have faith in congestion pricing, they need to have faith in the tollway system," said Joe DiJohn, Metropolitan Transportation Support Initiative director at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"The driving public needs to know that people are paying their tolls, but enforcing that (system) should be done in an efficient and effective manner," he added.

Violation blizzard

The problems largely center around a 13-month delay in sending out violation notices that spanned from July 2006 to August of last year. Tollway officials blame the delay on a mix-up in a multimillion dollar contract switch.

Violations were still recorded during the gap, but the delay in sending out notices led to a breakdown in notification to drivers, some of whom were unwittingly racking up thousands of dollars in fines because of I-PASS account errors.

Normally the tollway sends out a notice once three violations are linked to a particular license plate. But now hundreds of thousands of notices are going out with potentially scores of violations on each.

"People who are making violations in error need quicker feedback," said Joseph Schwieterman, director of DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development. "This is a policy controversy that needs a full public airing."

The tollway has not reprimanded the contractors for the 13-month gap, but King says they "hold their feet to the fire" over performance.

Tollway officials say the delay isn't a big deal because violators should have expected a fine in the mail eventually.

Meanwhile, the violation system is operating in overdrive, sending out 10,000 notices a day -- twice the normal rate -- as they try and dig out from the massive backlog.

At the same time, phone calls to the tollway's call center have spiked to 8,500 a day from an average of 6,500 in February, prompting the agency to hire additional staff to man the lines. The call center handles violation and general I-PASS issues.

Web site hits have tripled, King said.

Appeals also have jumped, prompting officials to boost the number of hearing days from one a week to three.

Tollway officials don't know when the deluge may subside.

About 600,000 notices have hit mailboxes since August, tollway spokeswoman Joelle McGinnis said. About 200,000 violations are expected to go out every month for the next year.

The notices could contain recent violations or violations from the 13-month gap, or a combination of the two.

Tollway officials concede many of the thousand of violations going out recently include I-PASS customers who had account errors, whether it be outdated credit cards or inaccurate license plate information.

They say it is critical for I-PASS users to make sure their records are up to date and accurate to avoid such mix-ups. The tollway can only avoid mistakes, they say, if the records are up to date.

"We have been screaming from the rooftops to get people to update their accounts," King said, pointing out the tollway's ad campaign in Jewel stores, online and via the agency's newsletters.

Fickle system

Indeed, the high-tech I-PASS system that processes millions of transactions is inherently fickle.

Take the case of Ed Stein from Batavia.

The appliance installer received a violation notice in late February saying he owed $62.20 for allegedly blowing three tolls. Pay up in full, the notice said, or he would owe $212.20.

But Stein has proof showing he was charged for tolls on his I-PASS at other booths on those same days.

After an inquiry by the Daily Herald, it was discovered Stein's license plate was recorded at the tollway with a '1' instead of an 'I,' making it impossible for the computer system to charge the toll to the proper I-PASS account as protocol dictates.

The tollway erased the fines after realizing the mix-up.

Still, Stein said he wonders how many other drivers are slapped with erroneous fines and just pay them to avoid calling or filing an appeal before the tab escalates significantly. Violators have about a month to pay before fines more than double and about three months before they lose their license.

"I feel I have educated myself and went back to check it," Stein said. "But what about the people who just pay the $50 or $80 fines even though they weren't wrong? That is all profit for the tollway."

After a lengthy hiatus, fine money is starting to flow into tollway coffers again. The tollway has collected about $10 million in the first three months of this year.

Ongoing problems

At that rate, the tollway would take in $40 million in fines this year, well above the $26 million taken in from fines during 2005, the last full collection year without violation system problems.

The tollway is owed much more, but officials say they can't currently produce an exact figure.

In late December, McGinnis said the tollway was owed $46 million in fines from notices that went out in the previous four months. The Daily Herald showed earlier this year that the violation system is proving lucrative, having raked in an apparent profit of $56 million in five years.

Keeping track of the number of violators or how much money is owed is an ongoing issue -- a problem first identified earlier this year that remains unchanged.

Before switching over contractors in 2006, tollway officials were able to provide violation rates for specific toll plazas over specified time periods.

That information is no longer available, officials say, but they estimate the violation rate is somewhere below 10 percent of all transactions -- a generic industry standard. Before Open Road Tolling was completed, the average violation rate was between 3 and 4 percent.

McGinnis said the agency's lack of internal data on violations doesn't impact its budget because such projections don't count on fine collections.

Experts, though, argue it is critical to determining whether Open Road Tolling is working.

"In order to plan the system you need to have data -- if you can't measure it, you can't fix it," DiJohn said.

Other issues with the violation system are even more systemic.

For example, the software that reads license plates in violation photos has trouble differentiating between different types of license plates.

This problem was highlighted by the Daily Herald earlier this year and remains an issue. Tollway officials say better software doesn't yet exist and they run every violation photo by an employee to scan for inaccuracies.

Still, false notices slip by and the tollway now says it estimates one half of one percent of violations sent out since August were erroneous. That amounts to about 3,000 violations.

King said the problem can be cleared up by alleged violators with a phone call to the tollway or an appeal hearing.

"This is a very small percentage that is going out after getting through multiple screenings and filters," King said.

Additionally, the tollway has not changed its notification process, which relies strictly on information contained in the vehicle registration database. Critics argue the system should also check driver's license addresses to make sure the fines are delivered to the right address.

McGinnis said that practice has not been modified because the tollway doesn't have access to driver's license data. The tollway has not pushed legislation authorizing that access.

Reform efforts?

Two measures have been proposed in the Illinois House aimed at reforming the system, but neither has gotten far under opposition from tollway officials who are appointed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

"They think everything is just fine the way it is," said state Rep. Paul Froehlich, a Schaumburg Democrat who introduced one of the measures. "That is the way I interpret their reaction -- there is not a problem that needs to be addressed."

Both measures attempt to put a limit on how long the tollway can wait before sending out violation notices. They also attempt to offer violators a payment plan option or break on fines.

Tollway officials say they don't have the administrative resources to oversee payment plans. And they say an earlier temporary payment plan had a high rate of default.

Tollway officials pegged the cost of Froehlich's proposal at $3 million a year.

State Rep. Dennis Reboletti, an Elmhurst Republican, said he is hoping to at least get a hearing on his reform proposal to vet some of the tollway's problems.

It remains unclear if the Democratic-controlled House will go along with Reboletti's push for hearings.

Other lawmakers are also interested in the issue.

State Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, who has pushed some of the strongest tollway reform measures, said he will pick up the issue in the Senate if a House proposal gains approval.

"There are legitimate issues here," said the Evanston Democrat.

Froehlich said he attempted to work with tollway officials on a compromise, but they weren't interested.

"I did my best to come up with something that wouldn't hamstring enforcement," he said. "And I would still like to work with them to see if we can find some common ground."