With new vendor, state says some tolling issues will improve

One switch puts each billing and customer service function out to bid.

Express toll lanes on I-405 in Bothell. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Express toll lanes on I-405 in Bothell. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

The Washington State Department of Transportation tolling division is shifting to new vendors for its customer service center and billing system, which handle about 50 million toll transactions per year. The changes will affect more than 1.5 million customers.

A new customer service center will open in Snohomish County as part of the shift, possibly in Lynnwood.

Other expected changes address complaints and requests from those who have opened Good To Go accounts to get the lowest tolls in the I-405 express toll lanes and other tolled locations. The new billing vendor will drop both opening and minimum balance requirements, allowing drivers to “pay as you go,” although pre-paid accounts will remain available.

Toll bills also will look different, and the phone line and website will have new features.

But beyond that, current Good To Go customer accounts “will continue to work in the same way without any action needed on their part,” said Ethan Bergerson, a spokesman.

The changes are expected to roll out in 2019 after a series of delays.

A Good To Go account is required to avoid the $2 surcharge for pay-by-mail toll bills.

Good To Go customers have been able to deduct a $15 Flex Pass from their $30 opening balance when creating their account to travel in the I-405 express toll lanes.

Changes long in coming

The state has been working on finding a replacement vendor since before the I-405 toll lanes opened, stemming in part from long-standing issues on other toll sites. That vendor has stayed on board through multiple contract extensions as the state planned for a transition.

However, a 2016 audit warned that WSDOT leaders play a role, too, and said that replacing vendors would not be enough to prevent a recurrence of problems.

“Without a clear understanding of the program’s goals and specific strategies to achieve them, the success of the tolling program is at risk, with a higher probability that today’s system and operational issues will reappear,” the auditors wrote.

“Since the audit we’ve done a lot of work to address what came out of it,” Bergerson said.

One switch was putting each billing and customer service function out to bid, rather than seeking a single vendor, Bergerson said.

The state’s new toll billing vendor, Dallas-based ETAN Industries, came under scrutiny a year ago in Utah for a security flaw in a toll billing system. There was no evidence any personal identifying information was stolen, according to an article in The Salt Lake Tribune.

WSDOT’s contract with the company requires routine security audits, Bergerson said. “We discussed this particular issue with ETAN last year and are confident in their ability to build a secure billing system.”

The new customer service vendor is Los Angeles-based AECOM, which has set up similar customer service centers in other states.

Toll lane update

The number of vehicles traveling in the I-405 express toll lanes continues to rise, though the share of carpoolers remains about the same. Nearly 7 out of 10 vehicles driving in the I-405 express toll lanes are charged a toll, which averages $3.82 at peak times.

That’s brought a windfall of cash — $66.4 million in gross revenue through June since the lanes opened in September 2015.

Toll lane drivers save an average of 12 minutes of drive time if they travel the whole 15-mile length from Lynnwood to Bellevue. But, overall, the project falls short of a key speed benchmark because of slowdowns in certain spots.

There are more cars on the road in general. But the problem also highlights a Snohomish County choke point that was exacerbated when the state further expanded the interstate south of Highway 522 but not to the north.

Toll money already has been tapped to help solve the problem. The state spent $11.5 million of toll revenue to create a new northbound shoulder lane north of Canyon Park, which has helped ease the slog there. The Legislature has set aside another $15 million to study more ways to expand capacity at the north end.

Despite missing the speed benchmark, the toll lanes were not closed. Next up: an expansion of the express toll lanes south to Renton.

Street Smarts: streetsmarts@heraldnet.com, 425-339-3432.

Correction: An earlier version gave an incorrect figure for the cost of the Flex Pass.

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