Florida’s transportation department won’t renew its contract with the company that botched its takeover of the SunPass tolling system last year, Transportation Secretary Kevin Thibault told the Times/Herald during a Wednesday interview.
State officials will instead re-bid the second half of what had been a 14-year deal with Conduent after the New Jersey company’s failures led to customers getting overbilled and suffering long wait times at the tolls.
“It is not our intent to renew it,” Thibault said, though he didn’t elaborate on the reasons behind the decision. “I’ve already told the team, ‘Let’s start talking about the next procurement.’”
Conduent would remain the SunPass contractor through 2022, which covers the first seven years of its contract with Florida. But Thibault said Florida wouldn’t exercise its option to renew with Conduent for the second half of the contract, which extends to 2029. Cutting the contract short would cause Conduent to miss out on hundreds of millions of dollars in public money.
Thibault’s announcement came two days after the Times/Herald reported that SunPass problems persisted at Florida’s airports, where malfunctions and server outages caused recent backups and customer overbillings.
Thibault told the Times/Herald that he was unaware of some of the problems until seeing the story, including a detail about how the Orlando International Airport was still waiting to be reimbursed for $1 million in SunPass parking fees.
“On the executive level, we were not aware of that at all,” he said.
The Times/Herald reviewed thousands of Tampa International Airport emails, which revealed airport officials were frequently frustrated by Conduent’s responses — or lack of responses — to problems with SunPass. Airport guests can use SunPass transponders to pay for parking at the airport.
Thibault did say that many of the airport issues were not Conduent’s fault. But, Thibault said, Department of Transportation officials should have been made aware of those conversations between Conduent and airport officials to make sure problems got resolved.
In response to the story, Thibault said he’s asked the director of Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise, which oversees SunPass, to reach out to each airport to make sure they’re dealing with state officials with their problems.
“Our goal is always to try to work with our partners to try to help get to some resolution,” he said. “If you’ve got an issue and you need to elevate it, let’s work with us so we can have the right people in place to make sure you’re getting that response that you need.”
He added, “There were some conversations that we weren’t made aware of until it bubbled, or kind of elevated (this week).”
Thibault also announced a new promotion: Heavy users of the state’s toll-by-plate system will get a free SunPass transponder in the mail with their bill along with an encouragement to sign up for automatic tolling.
Thibault said despite SunPass’s history over the last year, it’s now working well on the state’s toll roads and is easier for customers than the more cumbersome toll-by-plate system. The department is still working out the details of the plan.
“We need to be as proactive as we can with our customers,” Thibault said. “And this is an excellent opportunity to be able to do that.”
In 2015, Conduent won an estimated $600 million contract to process SunPass transactions. But it beat out competitors who were both cheaper and scored higher with state evaluators. Two companies filed bid protests that revealed state transportation officials had lowered the minimum requirements and deviated from department policies to award Conduent the job.
Last year, one of Conduent’s major shareholders hosted a fundraiser for former Gov. Rick Scott, who had also invested in the company. And Gov. Ron DeSantis received $35,000 from the same family for his campaign for governor.
DeSantis appointed Thibault to the job in January, and since then, the Department of Transportation has fined Conduent more than $8 million.
Thibault said they’ll have an “open and fair procurement” for the second seven years. Conduent will be able to bid for it, but one of the key metrics for winning will be the company’s history, Thibault said.
“Clearly it’s going to be past performance, and it’s going to be their capabilities. Do they have the strong capabilities that we’re looking for?” he said.
Conduent has had similar failures with its tolling systems in other states.
Under the terms of the contract, the most the state can withhold from the company is 25 percent of its invoices, and that’s what they’ve done so far, Thibault said.
Conduent isn’t the only company that could face additional penalties, either. Transportation contractors HNTB and Atkins oversaw parts of the bid process and the rollout of Conduent’s system.
A state inspector general is investigating what went wrong with Conduent’s system, and Thibault said he expects the state’s inspector general is looking into the performance of HNTB and Atkins, too.
“If there’s failure to perform, each one of those contracts have performance expectations,” Thibault said.
He said he expects the inspector general’s report by the end of the summer.
Times Political Editor Steve Contorno contributed to this report.