RALEIGH — At least 800 drivers on the Triangle Expressway have been double-billed this month, paying electronic tolls twice for every trip, the N.C. Turnpike Authority says.
And at least one of them was billed three different ways, for the same trip.
Dane Berglund, who runs the turnpike customer service center in Morrisville, blames the errors on drivers who have two transponders in their cars – an N.C. Quick Pass, designed for North Carolina’s toll road, and an E-ZPass, used to pay for trips on toll roads in 14 states from Virginia to Maine and Illinois.
“The 800 customers had double-billing charges incurred because they had two transponders on their windshield, or one of them in the glove box,” Berglund said. “If they have an N.C. Quick Pass sticker on the windshield, they need to remove the E-ZPass and take it out of their car completely, or put it in a non-read bag.”
The billing problems spring from North Carolina’s novel system of collecting tolls three different ways, none of them involving cash. The Turnpike Authority has made many more Triangle drivers unhappy with other billing errors, with hefty fees for late payments, and with complaints about the difficulty of setting up and maintaining transponder accounts.
“I called and said, ‘I think I’ve been double-charged,’” said Paul Rudovsky, 68, of Pinehurst. “She said, ‘Yes, you will be double-charged if you have both transponders.’ I was speechless.”
Perry Safran of Raleigh, vice-chairman of the Turnpike Authority board, said it was important to fix the double-billing problem.
“We’re in the trust business, and we’ve got to correct this,” Safran said. “And I’m sure it will be.”
The problem started on the morning of Jan. 3, when North Carolina began accepting toll payments from drivers with E-ZPass transponders.
For a year before that – since January 2012, when the first section of TriEx opened to traffic in Research Triangle Park and western Wake County – the only accepted transponder was North Carolina’s Quick Pass. Drivers without a transponder receive bills in the mail, based on photos of their license plates, and they pay tolls at higher rates.
Drivers with transponders are charged electronically through debit accounts with the toll agency, with a payment made every time the transponder-equipped car travels past a toll-road sensor. Many Triangle drivers have E-ZPass transponders attached to their windshields with Velcro strips, and hundreds also have Quick Pass windshield stickers.
The transponders have RFID (radio frequency identification) chips that can be detected by toll-road scanners unless they are sealed in silvery “no-read” bags. In the fine-print, terms-and-conditions document that every customer receives, there are instructions to carry no more than one transponder in the car.
“Folks obviously did not take the time to read the terms and conditions,” Berglund said.
But it wasn’t a problem before Jan. 3. Triangle Expressway is the first toll road in the United States where tolls can be collected through E-ZPass transponders and debit accounts, even though North Carolina is not part of the 14-state E-ZPass network.
North Carolina and E-ZPass are leading a national trend toward what toll agencies call interoperability, where transponder users in one state will do business with toll agencies that use different technologies in other states. Later this year, TriEx drivers will be able to pay for their trips with Florida’s SunPass transponder.
North Carolina and E-ZPass officials tested each other’s technology and billing systems before Jan. 3, but they didn’t count on drivers not reading that fine print.
“You’re using an RFID chip,” said PJ Wilkins, executive director of the Delaware-based E-ZPass Group. “You don’t want two of them in close proximity. It’s just not the way the system was designed to operate. You run the risk of your car being read (with) more than one device.”
Berglund said the Turnpike Authority discovered the 800 double-billed customers after it began receiving complaints. Their accounts will be credited with the overpayments, he said, and Quick Pass customers will receive letters admonishing them to avoid having more than one transponder in the car.
Double-billing problems also have been reported by TriEx drivers who do not have E-ZPass transponders.
Jerry L. Canterbury of Holly Springs and Jim Reagan of Cary each received bills for TriEx trips in December, at the higher rate charged for drivers who don’t have transponders.
But they also had been charged on their N.C. Quick Pass transponder accounts.
“I can’t figure how they have as much sophistication as they do, and then have this fail the way they did,” Reagan, 71, said in an interview.
Rudovsky, the Pinehurst driver, has the distinction of being overcharged both ways.
The Turnpike Authority, which is part of the state Department of Transportation, billed him both by mail and through his Quick Pass transponder for two TriEx trips on Dec. 29 and one on Jan. 9.
On that Jan. 9 trip, Rudovsky was triple-billed. It was his last duplicate mail bill – and the first of four trips for which he paid twice through Quick Pass and through an E-ZPass toll agency in New Jersey.
In all, Rudovsky’s records show he was double-charged $2.80 by mail and $5.75 with the two transponders.
Authority: Driver error to blame
Rudovsky said it should be easy for the Turnpike Authority to recognize that a car has two transponders and to avoid charging the driver more than once.
“People won’t know they’re double charged,” Rudovsky said. “Very few people go into their accounts to see what they’re charged. People aren’t going to notice until they trip over it later.
“A lot of credit card companies are putting RFID chips on their credit cards. Could you imagine what would happen if you went into Walmart, and it charged you on all the credit cards in your wallet?” Rudovsky said.
Berglund said there is no easy way for the Turnpike Authority to avoid double-billing more cars that travel the toll road with two transponders.
“The system is working the way it is supposed to, because we want to capture all the live transactions when the folks ride the road,” Berglund said. “It’s not like something we can go in and change in the system. It’s not a system fix that’s needed. It’s educating the customer.”
Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier/