SEATTLE -- The ad campaign is aggressive and everywhere: Bill Nye the Science Guy is on buses, billboards, TV, radio and cardboard cutouts in Safeway stores. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has spent millions to get the word out that tolling is about to begin on the 520 bridge. Tolling is expected to raise about $1 billion to help pay for the replacement of the aging bridge across Lake Washington.
The ads urge drivers to buy a Good to Go pass, which is a small transponder that adheres to your windshield. The transponder is scanned by readers when you cross the bridge and automatically deducts the cost of crossing the bridge from your account. If you don’t have a pass, a camera will take a photo of your license plate and you will be billed later by mail.
A highly produced video on the WSDOT website assures drivers that the all-electronic tolling system is hassle free, just like the process to buy your pass. According to the video: "Account sign up is easy. You can do it online, or by mail, phone, or fax."
But for thousands of customers there was nothing hassle-free about getting a Good to Go pass. The vendor hired by WSDOT to run the statewide tolling customer service center failed miserably when the program launched in February. The phone system crashed and online account numbers weren’t activating.
The office manager of Sander Groves Landscaping in Redmond, Janelle Stancik, thinks Good to Go is good for nothing. It took her hours to get passes for the company’s 18 trucks when the WSDOT program launched in February.
“Every time you think you're almost there, you find out you're not. That's frustrating. I just want stickers,” said Stancik. “(It took) multiple phone calls, logging on, not being able to access my account, not being able to find out which pass goes in which truck. They've called me twice, I've had to call them twice, I've emailed them once, and gotten no response to date.”
The process has improved since February. ETC went from 47 employees to 120. Wait times on the phone are much shorter now. But just last week customers reported having trouble entering pass ID numbers, credit card information and calls to customer service weren't returned.
WSDOT Tolling Division Director Craig Stone says they were concerned that the vendor, Richardson, Texas based Electronic Transaction Consulting (ETC), was understaffed and ill-prepared. Stone told KING 5 the state should have asked tougher questions before launching the program.
"We reviewed their numbers and said you're really sure about these numbers? And they said, 'Yes, that would be fine.' This should have been something that was real easy for them. And I think they were caught unprepared for the volumes that we had," said Stone.
Public records obtained by the KING 5 Investigators show that ETC is just one of dozens of well-paid consultants on the public payroll to plan, design, and implement the cutting edge 520 tolling system.
WSDOT says the project's on budget with $60 million spent so far for key components like cameras, travel time signage and public outreach. Marketing strategies to date have cost the state about $4 million, including paying Bill Nye $4,000 a day for his work.
WSDOT paid a public relations consultant, PRR, $42,377 for a glossy informational Good to Go video on its website. It's still up on the site, with an outdated message: "You may already know this but tolling on the 520 bridge will begin this April." The video ends with a similar message: "Remember tolling starts for the new 520 bridge this April."
That didn't happen. ETC couldn't prove they could handle the load. And another vendor, Telvent, which is being paid to deliver a key portion of the camera system, didn't deliver either. Last minute factory testing showed software couldn't read license plates fast enough for the flow of cars on 520.
Now WSDOT says tolling will begin in June at the earliest, depending on how successful the additional testing is.
As with any project, time equals money and WSDOT says the poor performance of some consultants means those vendors will have to pay up.
"We're also holding them accountable for the costs that were incurred during this period of time. We're in negotiations right now so I can't speak to the specifics of that but we are holding them accountable," said Stone.
Lawmakers in charge of the transportation budget and policies say not so fast. They think WSDOT shoulders a portion of the blame for not managing the consultants well enough. They also think the state will end up eating some of the costs incurred from the delays.
"Somebody didn't do their homework. And somebody didn't do their follow up. It says we as a legislature have to do more oversight and more review (for upcoming tolling projects like 405)," said Sen. Curtis King, the ranking minority member of the Senate Transportation Committee.
Legislators also say the missteps have eroded the agency's credibility.
"We have told them (WSDOT leaders) on numerous occasions that we believe the confidence level in the legislature over what is happening and how it's happened is that, it's gone down; their reputation. And now we don't know what to believe,” said King.
"I really do appreciate the fact that they want to do it right, I think that’s important, but I’m certainly very concerned about it,” said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, the Senate Transportation Committee Chair. “People are hired to do the job. You have to have some faith in them, but it's become very discouraging for me because I see the lack of real accountability. All I see is: we'll know more next week."
Good to Go customers say high profile problems like this make it more difficult for WSDOT to maintain the public’s trust.
"The frustration of all of this advertising being done before a system was even in place makes me wonder where my tax dollars are going," said Stancik.
When tolling begins on 520 it will be one of the most innovative all-electronic tolling programs in the country. There's nothing exactly like it in the world.
Until then, the state is losing $1 million a week in uncollected tolls. That is affecting WSDOT’s cash flow. The lost revenue will be made up in 30 to 40 years by extending the length of time the bridge is tolled.
Tolls will range from nothing to $3.50 each way during peak commute hours, depending on when you cross. For those without passes, there will be an additional $1.50 fee for each crossing because of the extra steps for the license plate photography and billing through the mail.