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  1. Opinion

Hello, SunPass? We have a problem (still). | Editorial

This image shows cars backed up attempting to exit a parking garage on June 12 at Tampa International Airport. The image was sent by airport Vice President John Tiliacos to Conduent, the company that operates the SunPass system, on June 13. A SunPass problem caused the backup. The image was obtained in a records request with Tampa International Airport. Photo by John Tiliacos
This image shows cars backed up attempting to exit a parking garage on June 12 at Tampa International Airport. The image was sent by airport Vice President John Tiliacos to Conduent, the company that operates the SunPass system, on June 13. A SunPass problem caused the backup. The image was obtained in a records request with Tampa International Airport. Photo by John Tiliacos
Published Jul. 9, 2019

The company that botched last year's rollout of the SunPass tolling system still can't get things right. Airports across Florida continue to report a host of problems, from customers being double-billed to malfunctions and outages that cause backups in parking garages. This poor service has dragged on far too long, and it's time Gov. Ron DeSantis held the vendor to account.

Conduent won the estimated $600 million tolling contract in a highly contested bid process, and it quickly fell behind when it started processing tolls last year. State officials said Conduent's software was "completely overwhelmed," leading to overbilling and a backlog of unpaid tolls, angering motorists and lawmakers alike. The state has fined the company about $8.3 million in penalties, though in June the Florida Department of Transportation announced that the situation with toll roads had stabilized.

The airports, apparently, are another matter. As Steve Contorno and Lawrence Mower of the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reported Tuesday, service breakdowns continue to plague airport garages, creating hassles for travelers who expect a seamless and orderly process for getting on their way.

Thousands of internal airport emails reviewed by the Tampa Bay Times show airport officials have been exasperated by a problem largely out of their hands. One internal six-month study at Tampa International found SunPass problems outpaced all other parking technology incidents. Miami International Airport spokesman Greg Chin said it has averaged three SunPass breakdowns a month. When SunPass is down, Miami International is sometimes forced to let cars through without paying. Orlando International Airport is still waiting to collect more than $1 million in SunPass parking fees, an airport spokeswoman said.

The problem isn't limited to machines. Amid months of SunPass breakdowns at Tampa International, the airport's vice president of operations, John Tiliacos, tried to get the company on the phone. He waited on hold for almost an hour. Emails showed Tampa airport officials struggling to arrange meetings with the company to fix systemic problems. Conduent's service provider "is often difficult to reach" during outages at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, said a representative for the Broward County Aviation Authority.

The breakdowns are a hassle, and they sour the visiting experience at Florida's biggest airports. After the SunPass system went down — again — on May 12, familiar complaints of long delays to exit Tampa International rolled in through email and social media. "SunPass is tarnishing an otherwise world-class airport experience," one customer wrote. Conduent declined requests by the Times/Herald for comment, directing reporters instead to the Florida Turnpike Enterprise, which oversees state toll roads. So much for accountability from this private-sector partner.

A state transportation spokeswoman said the department is working with Tampa International on improvements to the system, and within eight months Conduent plans to put the airports on a different operating system, according to Tampa airport emails. Tampa International said last week that reliability has recently improved and credited state transportation officials for getting Conduent's attention.

Getting the company's attention appears to be the trick. DeSantis didn't create this mess, but he moved decisively this year to hold the state and the contractor more accountable. He needs to intervene again.

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