Back-Seat Driver

Senator calls for audit of Bay Area Toll Authority for erroneous citations

Video: California woman hit with 55 Bay Area toll violations without crossing any bridges

Retired schoolteacher Richann Flynn lives a quiet life on an alfalfa farm near the Oregon border. She hasn't driven her truck to the Bay Area in 15 years, yet she has recently received 55 notices for failing to pay tolls on Bay Area bridges.
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Retired schoolteacher Richann Flynn lives a quiet life on an alfalfa farm near the Oregon border. She hasn't driven her truck to the Bay Area in 15 years, yet she has recently received 55 notices for failing to pay tolls on Bay Area bridges.

A Sacramento-area state senator is calling for an audit of the Bay Area Toll Authority after a constituent in Modoc County received 55 erroneous toll violation notices in the last year-plus even though she hadn’t driven her vehicle across any bay bridge in 15 years.

Sen. Ted Gaines, R-El Dorado, said Friday he will request the Joint Legislative Audit Committee authorize “a complete review of (the toll authority’s) FasTrak’s operations to see the scale of their mistakes” and will follow that with legislation so “no one is enduring the same FasTrak-inflicted misery that pained my constituent.”

Gaines said he responding to a call for help from Richann Flynn, a retired schoolteacher who lives on a ranch near the Oregon border. Flynn began receiving toll violation notices in the mail last year, and despite numerous calls to the toll authority’s FasTrak customer service center, was unable to get the agency to stop.

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Gaines interceded on her behalf. The Sacramento Bee also contacted the toll authority for an explanation. The toll authority subsequently apologized and dismissed her citations.

Randy Rentschler, legislation director for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which oversees the toll authority, said on Friday he does not believe the issue requires a legislative audit.

“We made a mistake, it shouldn’t have happened,” he said. “This person’s experience with our customer service wasn’t good. We apologized to her. But it was an extreme outlier.

“We have a pretty rock-solid record of competence. When you do hundreds of millions of transactions, you are going to have some very strange things happen.”

Toll authority officials acknowledge their automated system, in use on seven Bay Area bridge, makes errors a small percentage of the time, sometimes sending out inappropriate citations based on misread license plates. Although small in percentage, the actual number of errors may be around 85,000 annually, according to toll authority estimates. Most are corrected within a month, officials said.

Toll officials said their system’s optical readers confused Flynn’s license with plates on two other cars belonging to FasTrak customers. Flynn called the agency a number of times and said FasTrak representatives told her they would flag her license, but the tickets kept coming until Gaines and The Bee stepped in.

Rentschler said Friday the agency will make a few “changes to make sure it doesn’t occur again.” He did not specify what changes, other than saying the failure was a human one at the customer service center, not a systemic problem. The toll authority contracts with Xerox State and Local Solutions, Inc. to run its service center.

“We need to make clear to the call center and the managers at the call center, when people interface with us, we have to be careful and we have to be diligent,” he said. “A part of it is just management. It heightens our consciousness. We have to be more vigilant.”

Gaines, however, said the incident “makes me wonder how many other people out there are suffering this same bureaucratic nightmare.” In a follow-up letter to the toll authority this week, Gaines asked the agency to tell him how many erroneous violations the toll authority has issued in the last two years, what plans it has to improve its automated license plate recognition system, and what it intends to do to improve its dispute resolution process.

Several people who contacted The Bee after it published a story Thursday about Flynn said they have been hit with erroneous citations. Several said their calls to the customer service center led to extended phone waits. One said she finally hung up. Rentschler said the toll authority has been working on improving the call wait issue.

Sixty-four percent of vehicles that use the seven state bridges in the Bay Area are FasTrak customers, a system that allows them to go through the toll booths without stopping to pay. The vehicles carry transponders, which register with detectors in the toll plaza, prompting automatic account billing.

Rentschler said the number of people using FasTrak rather than paying cash at Bay Area bridges is slowly rising. The Golden Gate Bridge, which is operated by a separate district, already has switched to all-electronic tolling via FasTrak and credit card accounts.

Rentschler said the toll authority, which oversees the Carquinez Bridge on Interstate 80 near Vallejo and the Bay Bridge, is “migrating toward more FasTrak,” but he declined to say if and when toll operations will be fully electronic.

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