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One Florida agency rejected the troubled SunPass vendor three years ago. Here's why.

Cars pass through the Sun Pass toll lanes at the Sunshine Skyway Bridge toll booth plaza in St. Petersburg on Wednesday, July 11, 2018. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
Cars pass through the Sun Pass toll lanes at the Sunshine Skyway Bridge toll booth plaza in St. Petersburg on Wednesday, July 11, 2018. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
Published Jul. 27, 2018

When Florida wanted to consolidate its tolling systems into what drivers now know as SunPass, regional expressway agencies in Tampa, Orlando, and Miami were ready to work together.

But when Xerox spinoff Conduent State & Local Solutions was chosen as the contractor in 2015, one agency — the Central Florida Expressway Authority (CFX) — pulled out of the deal after researching the company's track record in other states.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: SunPass is a mess. Florida could have seen it coming.

That decision proved wise as Conduent today is in turmoil, leaving SunPass drivers in the lurch as it wades through a backlog of 170 million unprocessed SunPass charges. CFX's pullout hasn't spared it from some misery as well. System problems with SunPass have had a ripple effect on Orlando-area drivers who use the E-Pass system, owned and operated by CFX.

But it could have been worse. Michelle Maikisch, CFX chief of staff and public affairs officer, said the agency's regional board spotted Conduent's red flags in 2015.

"It was a lot of information coming out from different entities that things weren't going well nationally with that company," she said.

Plus, central Florida had its own local problems with another Conduent subsidiary. Conduent Transport Solutions ran the fare collection system for the Sunrail commuter train owned by FDOT, which launched in 2014. According to news reports, Sunrail riders experienced months of difficulties with the ticketing machines. FDOT delayed payments to Conduent but said it was too late to pull out of contract — and today Conduent remains the contractor.

Maikisch said witnessing Conduent's handling of Sunrail prompted the CFX board to take a step back from the contract and continue operating its own tolling system, E-Pass.

In addition to concerns about Conduent's history, the CFX board also wanted direct oversight.

"It was going to be the Turnpike would run it and the agencies who were part of it really would not have the same level of oversight as the Turnpike," Maikisch said.

Orlando's tolling system is complicated. The Central Florida Expressway Authority, which covers Brevard, Lake Orange, Osceola, and Seminole counties, operates E-Pass without an outside contractor. But FDOT and the Florida Turnpike Enterprise (FTE), which oversee SunPass, own parts of the regional expressways, which is where E-Pass' 400,000 customer accounts are running into issues.

FDOT and CFX have an interoperability agreement, meaning tolls are collected on behalf of whoever owns the road, including roads in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. When SunPass users pass through CFX toll roads, CFX will forward the charge to FTE. And when E-Pass users travel on a FDOT/FTE owned toll road, the agencies will forward the transaction to CFX.

But with the SunPass system's failure since early June, E-Pass users that drive on FDOT-owned sections of roads in central Florida are affected, too.

Usually, the state pays CFX on a weekly basis to process SunPass charges on their sections of the expressways. But since Conduent has delayed the toll processing, the state has to pay CFX based on estimates for a typical week of toll transactions, as well as catch up on the backlogged charges that have accrued since the system went down in early June.

"Once all financial reconciliation activities are complete, the Department will wire any balance of accumulated actual revenues," FTE executive director Paul Wai said in a July 16 letter sent to CFX executive director Laura Kelly.

So far, FDOT has paid CFX close to $23 million and was expected to pay another almost $5 million today, with continued weekly payments of almost $5 million until caught up, according to CFX spokesman Brian Hutchings.

It's clear that CFX officials want to distance themselves from FDOT and the SunPass chaos. Last week, a new FAQ section was posted on the CFX website to differentiate E-Pass from SunPass.

When CFX launched E-Pass in 1994, at that time it was the first back office system in the state for processing tolls, Maikisch said.

Maikisch said that the agency is in ongoing communication with E-Pass customers who are impacted by the SunPass outage, and monitoring the charges so customers won't be hit with sudden, large bills.

"I think local control has been beneficial," she said. "If you're an E-Pass customer and you're driving on our roads, you're functioning normally."

In early July, one SunPass customer in Orlando started a petition: "Don't Charge SunPass Users When Your System Is Down." As of Thursday, close to 3,400 people agree with him, based on the growing number of signatures.

Mike DiMauro is a food delivery driver and passes through toll booths between five and ten times a week. To be reimbursed while on the job, he has to give his boss a screen capture of his toll charges. But since SunPass stopped processing charges in June, he said he hasn't been able to.

"I'm hoping that they'll be able to waive all our charges and put them toward the vendor and sue the vendor," he said. "It shouldn't be our responsibility to begin with."

State politicians have echoed his request, including Rep. Janet Cruz (D-Tampa) and seven other Democratic leaders in south Florida.

FDOT officials have said in press releases that the SunPass customer service website, app and phone lines are up and running again. But some Florida drivers who still can't get through to the toll operators are taking to social media to express their frustration:

Vic Mendez on Twitter

@MayorLevine what is your plan for tolls & contractors of FDOT? This @SunPass_FDOT backlog is a disaster! Every day 3 transactions post to my bank account from June! #suspendthetolls

@MayorLevine what is your plan for tolls & contractors of FDOT? This @SunPass_FDOT backlog is a disaster! Every day 3 transactions post to my bank account from June! #suspendthetolls

DrinkingandDisney on Twitter

@SunPass_FDOT have you always been this incompetent, or is this a recent development? Charging customers for transaction they can't see or verify sounds pretty illegal and unethical to me.

@SunPass_FDOT have you always been this incompetent, or is this a recent development? Charging customers for transaction they can't see or verify sounds pretty illegal and unethical to me.

Matthew Kokes on Twitter

sunpass still no tolls posted to my account since June 2. It's bs. Maybe they lost these tolls or all tolls on 417, 528 are free. Wish. :/

sunpass still no tolls posted to my account since June 2. It's bs. Maybe they lost these tolls or all tolls on 417, 528 are free. Wish. :/

Michael Oliver on Twitter

Went thru a Sunpass toll today so I guess I should remember to write that down so that when I get the bill in 30 years I know it was a legitimate charge

Went thru a Sunpass toll today so I guess I should remember to write that down so that when I get the bill in 30 years I know it was a legitimate charge

MORE: Go here for more Business News

Contact Hannah Denham at hdenham@tampabay.com. Follow @hannah_denham1.

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