It’s no malfunction, just a quirk of the ongoing changeover to a statewide tolling system. A new generation of transponder windshield stickers introduced this year doesn’t match up with the reader machines on the bridge.
The discrepancy should be invisible to drivers, according to the state Department of Transportation, because there are also cameras on the bridge to catch license plates as they pass. The cameras send the image to workers in the new tolling customer service center in Seattle’s University District, who check whether the car is signed up for Good to Go and charge the driver’s account $2.75.
The state is working with contractor TransCore to try to replace the readers, either in June 2012 when its contract expires or even sooner, WSDOT Toll Division Director Craig Stone said.
But it is raising some eyebrows on the bridge’s citizen advisory committee and in the state Legislature. Sen. Derek Kilmer called it “outrageous.”
“I think it’s a little nutty that there wouldn’t be a presupposition that the transponders actually work the day the contractor comes on board,” said Kilmer, a Gig Harbor Democrat. “It raises concerns about the DOT’s ability to structure contracts in a way that makes sense and protects toll payers.”
TransCore’s contract was modified when the state moved to a new back-office system run by Electronic Transaction Consultants Corp. in preparation for tolls that are planned to start this spring on the Route 520 bridge.
“It allowed us to go to the new transponders, which is saving everybody money,” Stone said.
The move cut the cost of managing toll accounts on the Narrows bridge by roughly half, saving a projected $1.6 million to $2.2 million a year, according to the department.
While the customer-service work shifted to a new company, TransCore still runs the tollbooths, readers and cameras on the Narrows bridge.
The state pays the company $2.9 million a year, an amount that is 35-40 percent higher than it could be if rebid, WSDOT estimated in a February report.
Kilmer said the state didn’t have much negotiating leverage when it worked out the deal with TransCore, since the company was already managing the tollbooths.
The old passes, which most motorists have, are still readable on the bridge. They are based on TransCore’s proprietary technology and can’t be scanned by other companies’ readers. State officials opted for new passes that use open-source technology.
New Good to Go customers opening accounts since mid-February are getting the new passes, including tens of thousands of people who are signing up because of the Route 520 project. Only a small minority of them will end up crossing the Narrows bridge.
Still, “That was a big selling point,” said citizen advisory committee member Jim Pasin of Gig Harbor, “that if you bought a transponder and lived up in King County, for example, and you traveled to a place over here, that transponder would work. And that doesn’t seem to be the case.”
Members of the advisory panel questioned whether the cost of reviewing camera footage for those drivers would end up hitting toll payers. But Stone said it’s all part of Electronic Transaction Consultants’ contract and there is no additional cost to the state.
It’s the same work the company does when a Good to Go pass is damaged and unreadable, Stone said, as happens with about 1 percent of all vehicles.
The need for watching the video is about to expand. Once the Legislature gives final approval and 520 tolls begin, Narrows bridge fines are to be replaced with $5.50 tolls for drivers caught on camera crossing the bridge without paying cash or using Good to Go.
While cameras on Route 520 will be able to recognize license plate numbers, those on the Tacoma Narrows bridge cannot, unless the contract is changed to require updated equipment. The plates have to be read manually.