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Remember Florida’s SunPass debacle? A new company might take over.

In a surprise, state transportation officials are giving Conduent State & Local Solutions another chance to bid on the state’s tolling system.
 
A view of the I-275 northbound Sunpass lane at the Skyway Bridge. [WILL VRAGOVIC   |   Times]

A view of the I-275 northbound Sunpass lane at the Skyway Bridge. [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times]

Published Dec. 23, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Earlier this year, Florida’s transportation secretary vowed not to renew the contract of the company behind the state’s 2018 SunPass tolling disaster.

That appeared to be a sure thing as recently as last week. In November, the Department of Transportation came up with a list of finalists to take over Conduent State & Local Solutions’ contract, and the New Jersey-based company wasn’t on it.

But in a surprise, the agency on Friday rejected all bidders and will now start over the bidding process, giving Conduent another chance to keep a seven-figure, seven-year contract to process Florida’s toll transactions and customer service calls.

A department spokeswoman did not respond when asked why it rejected the bids, an unusual decision that wiped out six months of work hearing pitches from a handful of large companies.

One of those companies was Conduent, which, in a direct challenge to Transportation Secretary Kevin Thibault’s vow, submitted a bid to continue work despite being blamed for the system’s failure in 2018.

Related: SunPass: Inspector general faults state, contractors for toll failures

Last month, officials had settled on three finalists instead: Canada-based WSP, Nashville-based Transcore and Virginia-based Faneuil. The final decision was scheduled to happen in January.

Conduent was only partly to blame for the disaster that unfolded when it started processing the state’s tolls two years ago.

Most of the blame lies with the Florida Department of Transportation.

Department officials seemed intent on hiring Conduent back in 2012 when they were taking bids on a potential $600 million contract over 14 years to process tolls and manage call centers across the state’s four turnpike authorities.

Conduent was one of a handful of companies to respond. But during the bid process, the state lowered the minimum requirements and deviated from its own procurement policies to award Conduent, the Times/Herald found last year.

When the state announced Conduent the winner, two competing companies protested, noting that the state violated its own contracting policies. The then-secretary of the Department of Transportation, Ananth Prasad, took the extraordinary step of paying one of those companies $3.6 million to go away. State lawmakers later changed the law to restrict such payoffs.

As Conduent started work on the project, state transportation officials took a hands-off approach, leaving oversight of Conduent’s work up to other private contractors, state auditors later found. The state allowed Conduent to run behind schedule and over its original contract; the first seven-year stint was originally for $287 million, but it increased by 25 percent to $358 million.

Related: How Florida’s SunPass debacle started in 2012

Although the state’s technology agency raised red flags about the project’s cost overruns and blown deadlines, it mysteriously decided to drop its oversight a year before Conduent’s system went live.

The state never properly tested Conduent’s system before the launch.

When Conduent started processing tolls on June 11, 2018, it was an immediate fiasco. The system was not capable of processing the state’s millions of daily toll transactions.

For the next six months, the company struggled to catch up, overbilling some people — some by hundreds of dollars — and not billing others.

The state had to reimburse some people’s bank overdraft fees, and it lost out on an estimated $50 million in toll revenue from the fiasco.

Conduent was penalized millions of dollars, but the department said last year that the company had fixed the tolling problems.