SOUTHERN INDIANA — When tolling started on the new and renovated bridges in Kentuckiana on Dec. 30, 2016, both Amy Williams and Anthony Walker were ready.
The Southern Indiana residents don't know each other. Williams lives in Sellersburg and Walker in New Albany. But they both commute to Kentucky for work. They knew that the fastest way for them to get to and from their jobs would be across one of the three electronically tolled bridges.
As a result, they obtained their RiverLink accounts and corresponding transponders early — just so they could cross the bridges with no hassle when the time came.
It's been almost one year since tolling began to pay for the $2.3 billion Ohio River Bridges Project and the maintenance of and the operations on the structures. Williams still happily travels the bridges.
“Overall, it's been great,” she said.
Walker has stopped, instead taking an untolled bridge to get to work after running into issues with the local tolling system, which is branded as RiverLink and operated through a contract with Kentucky's and Indiana's governments, by the privately owned Kapsch TrafficComm.
“I'm done with this company,” Walker said. “They need to go away.”
The tolls on the bridges have received mixed reactions from the public: Some say they've had no or few problems, while others talk of constant issues. Statistics from RiverLink show that the majority of drivers are, at the very least, not actively challenging the system. Tolling officials say that the system is mostly operating as it should, but admit that there is room for customer service improvements. And even though problems may not be as rampant as they seem, public perception is still an issue.
WILLIAMS AND WALKER
Williams crosses the tolled bridges consistently for work and so far, she has only experienced two issues with RiverLink: Her vehicle was billed twice for one crossing in both cases.
One of the times, Williams did nothing — not caring enough about the $1 to wait out RiverLink's up and down call times. But in the other instance, she called customer service and got a refund.
“They've been good about that,” she said.
Walker, meanwhile, has faced multiple issues — the first of which began near the beginning of tolling when RiverLink doubled the amount it transferred from his bank account to his RiverLink account. Walker called the tolling system and got the problem fixed.
A few months later, in May, charges started showing up on Walker's account as unregistered transactions. He was being billed $4 — the amount it costs a passenger vehicle to cross the bridges without a RiverLink account — instead of the reduced rate of $2.
That's when Walker noticed that his car was registered to his account with a Kentucky license plate rather than an Indiana one.
Walker called RiverLink again. The tolling company appears to have refunded him for those unregistered transactions, although Walker didn't notice until the News and Tribune looked at his account.
His license plate was never changed in the system, though, and since then Walker has occasionally received paper bills for $4 tolls in the mail for his crossings instead of electronic ones.
RiverLink typically charges by scanning transponders first if a car has one, but occasionally, there are system checks to ensure that the transponder matches the car. In cases where the tag doesn't, like in Walker's car, an invoice could be triggered.
Walker, confounded by the invoices, refuses to pay them. Now, he believes he owes hundreds in tolls and late fees — at least $132, according to his latest invoice. And this is despite the fact he has plenty of money in his RiverLink account.
State Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, has been hearing stories like those of Wliliams and Walker. He thinks the system is mostly working, but does admit to hearing a lot of frustration and confusion about incorrect or delayed bills — both online and from constituents he speaks to in person.
“I wanted to give the system chance to work, but I'm hearing about problems that should have been resolved after almost a year,” he said. “I'm going to be digging into data and talking with [Indiana Department of Transportation] officials about my concerns.”
The data says that, as of Nov. 27, less than 2 percent, or nearly 500,000 bridge crossings, have been disputed by drivers. A dispute means that the RiverLink customer took the time to fill out a form about their issue, which is only for suspected billing errors or customers who say their vehicles were sold, leased, rented or stolen at the time it supposedly crossed the bridge.
Out of those disputes, nearly 430,000 were accepted, 18,000 were rejected and more than 51,000 were pending resolution. The second-most-common reason for disputing a toll was a billing error while the first was miscellaneous.
While disputes aren't the perfect measure of how many RiverLink customers have been experiencing issues, they're one of the only ones the tolling system was able to provide the News and Tribune. The Indiana Attorney General's office has received 77 complaints, one more than the Kentucky Attorney General's Office.
But Mindy Peterson, a RiverLink spokeswoman, said she thinks that most customers really are satisfied by the system.
“The vast majority of people you are not hearing from,” she said. “And those are the people that have the prepaid accounts. They maintain a balance, they have a transponder, they're using it and it's working exactly as it should.”
Drivers who cross the bridges without transponders have pictures of their vehicle taken, which leaves more room for possible issues. The picture is sent to two Kapsch TrafficComm employees. Those workers read the license plate. If they agree on what it says, the owner of the vehicle is charged, whether they have a RiverLink account or not. If the employees don't agree, the picture is sent for further review to a supervisor. who can either make a final decision or declare the plate unreadable.
If a driver is charged and has a RiverLink account, money is withdrawn from that account. Those who do not have RiverLink accounts receive a mailed, paper invoice, which can take a month to get there — sometimes longer. That invoice could get lost or delayed in the mail, which can be an issue because tolls are due 30 days from when the invoice is produced. They're also sent to the address that the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles or county clerk's office has on file, which for some people, isn't the one they check the most often.
There also have been two instances in which thousands of RiverLink customers have received late-fee notices for unpaid tolls with a $5 charge tacked to them before they received their first invoice. In both instances, which occurred in October and late-November/early-December, respectively, the drivers were refunded, but it was still a problem to which RiverLink account holders largely weren't subject.
RiverLink late fees can get hefty, and they carry extra consequences if left unpaid. The first comes with a $5 fee, the second carries a $25 fine and the third, a collection notice, adds a $30 fee, meaning some drives are facing $60 in fines in addition to their original toll amount.
That's what stresses Walker.
“I mean, I'm barely making bills the way it is,” he said.
Walker is also at risk of having a hold placed on his vehicle registration. Ten days after RiverLink sends a collection notice, it can do that, meaning you won't be able to renew your registration unless you pay up.
Those drivers can set up a payment plan to RiverLink if their fees are too much or, if they have yet to receive a collection notice, they can sign up for an account and get their late fees waived and their tolls reduced to the discounted amount.
Unlike Walker, Timothy Balmer has had no issues with RiverLink. The Jeffersonville resident and his daughter, who share an account, admittedly do not cross the tolled bridges very often, but he thinks Peterson is right about the amount of people encountering issues.
“I think a lot of it is operator error, and they don't look at it and they don't check it,” he said.
He's “all positive” about the tolling system.
Peterson says that RiverLink is mostly operating the way it should, but she and other people associated with the tolling system have admitted some issues.
RiverLink has struggled with high call wait times at its Municipal Services Bureau customer service call centers in Muncie; Austin, Texas; and Puerto Rico, although the last is an overflow center. (MSB is a a subcontractor to Kapsch).
From January to March, the average time it took for a RiverLink customer service representative to answer a call was a staggering 40.5 minutes — well above the tolling system's goal of less than one minute. Peterson said that the tolling company wasn't prepared for the influx of calls that it had received at the beginning of tolling. Only 15 customer service representatives were employed at the time.
RiverLink hired more people to solve the problem and wait times plummeted to 11 minutes and 16 seconds in May and 51 seconds in June.
But in October, Hurricane Irma in Puerto Rico and the announcement about vehicle registration holds caused wait times to shoot up once again: this time to 12 minutes and 9 seconds.
RiverLink is working on reducing them again with plans to add 60 more customer service representatives in the coming weeks. Currently, around 70 work on the tolling system.
Another issue RiverLink is working on fixing is its technology's ability to clearly capture license plates.
An internal audit, conducted in August by the Kentucky government and based on four hours of bridge crossings, estimated that 7 percent of all license plates captured by RiverLink were unreadable. Those unclear license plates mean that Kentucky and Indiana are potentially missing out on $722,700 each year.
Kapsch was tasked with creating recommendations about how to deal with the findings, Peterson said.
Eventually, the frequency of unreadable plates will be incorporated into the tolling system's overall leakage rate, or rate of crossings that never result in money paid to RiverLink. Peterson said the leakage rate for the system is unclear at this time because RiverLink doesn't know how many drivers will fail to pay their outstanding tolls and fees. A study for RiverLink has estimated that the system's leakage rate will initially be as high as 15 percent for drivers without transponders. By 2019, it's expected to drop to 10 percent, and by 2022, it could be as low as 5 percent.
RiverLink's team has said they aim to fix problems with the tolling system as quickly as they can after identifying them. (The team includes the Kentucky and Indiana governments, particularly INDOT and the Kentucky Cabinet of Transportation, as well as Kapsch and toll system advisers, who are consultants that have been a part of the system since the beginning of tolling).
The process, which Scott Adams, INDOT's director of tolling operations, referred to as an ongoing “get-well” plan at a Dec. 18 Tolling Body meeting, is facilitated by routine meetings among the RiverLink team.
So far, in addition to reducing call wait times, RiverLink has made changes such as adding prominent lettering to invoices to ensure that drivers don't throw them away.
More recently, in preparation for the one-year anniversary of tolling, RiverLink announced that it was going to allow drivers forced to cross the tolled bridges by traffic authorities, such as police, to waive their fees. They also plan to start a pay-by-plate program that will allow drivers without accounts to pay their bill online before they receive their invoice. That won't be available for a while, though — perhaps not until summer.
These changes address what Peterson calls “forward-facing” issues, such as website layout and information or what customers hear when they first call customer service.
Larger issues can be addressed by the Kentucky-Indiana Joint Board or the Tolling Body, voting boards made up of INDOT, KYTC, Indiana Finance Authority and Kentucky Public Transportation Infrastructure employees.
State Rep. Steve Stemler, D-Jeffersonville, said that RiverLink has been making “great strides” since starting, and that their most-recent changes show that they're listening. Like Clere, though, he also believes there is room for improvement.
There are still some issues voiced by drivers that seem hard to diagnose, such as those of Julia Jenkins Masterson. The Jeffersonville resident opened up a RiverLink account for her, her husband and her son before tolling started, much like Williams and Walker did.
Everything was going well for Masterson until a few months in, when she received a notice that RiverLink could no longer use the payment method she had assigned to her account. After attempting to call customer service and running into long wait times, she deleted her payment information and re-entered it. Masterson's idea worked, but it wasn't long until she ran into a new problem.
Her son, who often crosses the bridge for school, started to receive occasional mailed invoices for $4 along with his account charges. Masterson thought it had something to do with his car, but soon, the same thing started happening to her.
Masterson and her son cross the bridges one to two times per week on average, but they've received over 20 of these charges, and unlike Walker, their license plates aren't listed on their account with the wrong states.
Each time, Masterson has been able to resolve her problem by sending a letter to RiverLink with the invoice, the license plate number on the bill and the transponder number, but…
“It's just frustrating,” she said.
Peterson hopes that RiverLink can encourage more drivers without RiverLink accounts and transponders to get them.
“Because when you do that, they don't have to worry about anything,” she said.
Or, at least, they don't have to worry about invoices most of the time.
Peterson admits that there might be a perception problem among locals who heard the horror stories about long call wait times at the beginning of tolling. But now, that problem has been drastically reduced.
“Did it happen?” she said. “Yes, it happened, and the unfortunate thing is you can't, you can't take away what happened, you can only learn from it and improve.”
She hopes that potential drivers haven't tuned out RiverLink yet, but some may have.
Walker is determined never to cross a tolled bridge again, even though it adds time to his commute.
Tammy Voigt, a professor of practice in strategic communication at Indiana University Southeast, said that the general tone of users on social media regarding RiverLink has been overwhelmingly negative.
“As you look at your news stream, you see the posts, the random posts — very random,” she said. “But you see the posts that say, 'Gosh, has anybody had any trouble with RiverLink lately?' And the next thing you know this thing is loading up 10, 20, 30 comments, and it's almost like a feeding frenzy.”
That can be hard for a company to overcome, Voigt said. But there are ways to turn the tide — things RiverLink has already started to do: Admit your mistakes, put together a tangible plan to fix them, and constantly communicate your progress.