Final invoices are going out this week to SunPass customers who got caught in a billing backlog.
The problem began with a trouble-plagued update to the state’s toll road system, and issues that have bedeviled a SunPass contractor since last June still haven’t been completely worked out.
As the last invoices were being readied, the Senate Infrastructure and Security Committee got an update on the Sunpass debacle.
“There are customer billing discrepancies throughout these areas, overcharges, poor website performance, and a call center with unacceptable wait times,” said committee Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon. He laid out the issues with the company hired by the state to upgrade and consolidate Sunpass office operations.
The Florida Department of Transportation contracted with Conduent State & Local Solutions for the work in 2015. The department solicited proposals and deemed six vendors to be qualified.
The department says Conduent was chosen because the company offered the best value.
The Times/Herald Bureau in Tallahassee later found financial ties between Conduent and former Governor Rick Scott’s investments.
The system upgrades began last June and were supposed to take one week to deploy. But the system didn’t go live as planned, and Lee says there have been significant implications -- like problems with processing a lot of payments.
“Just the Turnpike alone is a billion dollars a year in toll collections, and that’s about 2.7 million dollars a day, two and a half million transactions a day,” Lee said.
“Watching in Hillsborough County, I was astounded and appalled at what I saw unfold,” said Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, who has several toll roads in her district.
Cruz says she’s gotten an earful from constituents. “I mean we picked a company that was unqualified to do the work, and I don’t understand how they ended up with the contract, but they were wholly unqualified," Cruz said. "So I want to ask you, isn’t it time we look for another vendor if Conduent is unable to resolve these issues in a timely fashion, and why would we do this to a taxpayer?”
Cruz says the state made a mistake in hiring Conduent as well as keeping the company around after so much turmoil. “In my opinion, they failed us miserably, and to work with them and give them the opportunity to do this when they were unqualified in the first place personally offends me,” Cruz said.
Conduent has been fined $780,000 so far for not meeting deadlines. The company could incur fines totaling a quarter of its $343 million contract.
Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, took a different view. He says he’s never seen any system launch without problems, and they shouldn’t be too quick to break a contract.
"I think, although I understand the frustration, to think that we who are not very knowledgeable in this thing would try to say that you’re going to cancel a contract and enter a new one might be a little bit more than what - as a committee - that we even have any knowledge," Perry said. "I’m not saying we shouldn’t look into it more.”
Senator Ed Hooper, R-Palm Harbor, likened problems with the Sunpass upgrade to the state’s unemployment website that relaunched in 2013 behind schedule and with design flaws. He thinks stronger wording in state contracts could help.
“Perhaps we as the state do not in our contracts prior to award put enough strong language in to where we don’t technically get into this type of scenario," Hooper said. "Maybe we ought to think about some severe language that, should this occur again, we don’t have to talk about should we cancel a contract and get into a legal quagmire that takes years to resolve.”
Lawmakers were told the Sunpass system is now functioning as it should, and the final 4.4 million invoices left over from the backlog are in the process of being sent out. Those invoices are mainly going to motorists who don’t have transponders and instead use the toll-by-plate system.
Florida Department of Transportation District 4 Secretary Gerry O'Reilly was asked whether the problems with Conduent’s upgrades have been blown out of proportion.
"From my perspective, in those early months in June and July and August when things weren’t getting processed and people weren’t getting billed, that was totally unexpected and shouldn’t be how it happened," O'Reilly said. "Since then, like I said, the vast majority of transactions, everything is running smoothly. The part that hasn’t happened is those invoices getting mailed out, so that’s not acceptable either. But we’re definitely climbing in the right direction now.”
The committee chairman said officials from Conduent were invited to talk to senators about the roll out, but no one from the company attended the meeting.
~The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.