Road Worrier: NC DOT can blame its customers or learn from them

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comFebruary 4, 2013 

Thank you for calling Customer Service. How may I insult you?

Oh, let me count the ways.

You could double-bill the drivers you hope to turn into loyal, paying customers for your billion-dollar toll road. Then, without apology, blame them for your blunder.

That’s the N.C. Turnpike Authority approach. Who do they think they are – the DMV?

At the state Department of Transportation, now under new management, customer service is a hot concept. It was a catchphrase in Pat McCrory’s gubernatorial campaign and became a mission mantra for Tony Tata, his new DOT secretary.

Tata is focusing first on the Division of Motor Vehicles, where there’s plenty of room for improvement in customer service. Chapel Hill, where I live, has gone three months without a license tag office. A note on the door tells drivers to go to Durham.

Tata is considering recommendations to open offices on weekends, establish shopping mall kiosks, and provide online options for parents who keep driving logs for teens with learner’s permits.

And after he makes DMV more responsive to the millions of drivers it regulates, Tata might be ready to fix the Turnpike Authority. He’ll find some unhappy customers there.

Last week, the agency said at least 800 drivers had paid twice for their trips on the Triangle Expressway in January. They were charged through debit accounts linked to E-ZPass transponders they got from toll agencies in northern and Midwestern states, and also through N.C. Quick Pass transponder accounts.

Dane Berglund, who runs the turnpike customer office in Morrisville, said customers were at fault for having more than one flavor of transponder stuck to their windshields.

This is a common practice among folks who do lots of driving through states with toll roads. The Sun Pass works in Florida. The N.C. Quick Pass works in North Carolina.

The E-ZPass works in Virginia and 13 other states – and it didn’t work anywhere else until Jan. 3, when the E-ZPass became legal electronic tender for TriEx transactions.

Berglund pointed out in a Feb. 1 letter to customers that their fine-print contracts include a general admonition to use just one transponder at a time.

But the Turnpike Authority never mentioned this in news releases, in letters to customers or on its website before the start of E-ZPass transactions in North Carolina. It did not post signs.

And Berglund’s bad-customer letter did not say: “We should have installed software and procedures to prevent this double-billing.” Or, “we should have warned you.” Or simply, “we’re sorry this happened.”

Turnpike customer problems go beyond E-ZPass.

Drivers with Quick Passes qualify for a low toll rate, but sometimes they’re billed by mail at a higher rate. There are the late fees and penalties that pile up uncommonly fast.

And there are complaints about the difficulty of doing turnpike business online.

“They’re like: ‘It’s so easy to do this on the website,’” Stacey Ruesch, 37, of Cary told the Road Worrier. “Well, I work in (information technology), and I was pulling my hair out. I gave up and sent everything by mail.”

DOT employs diligent public workers who build good roads and run good ferries, and work around the clock to keep them open in bad weather. They expose themselves to dangerous traffic on Triangle freeways, and to formidable natural elements from the Smokies to the Outer Banks.

But sometimes, when things go wrong, they like to blame the customers.

Back in 2005, traffic engineers blamed drivers for crashes at a complicated Glenwood Avenue interchange in West Raleigh. DOT had adjusted a series of traffic signals, and suddenly there was a red arrow where drivers had been accustomed to a green arrow.

“I don’t know why people are running the red,” one DOT traffic engineer harrumphed. “The display is clear and visible.”

Maybe so. But there were 16 crashes in 23 days. DOT finally changed the red arrow back to green. The crashes stopped.

Similarly, on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, DOT and city engineers designed a quirky, twin-ring roundabout at the N.C. State University Bell Tower. It was so complicated that the city published a user manual.

But drivers were still confused. Police counted 100 roundabout crashes in 20 months. City experts distributed more manuals, erected more warning signs, and said drivers should be more careful.

Finally they gave up and reverted to a simple single ring. In the seven months since then, police have logged just one crash at the Bell Tower roundabout.

Traffic engineers sometimes are slow to recognize these kinds of problems, because they don’t spend much time talking to drivers.

Tata can learn a lot about customer service if he talks to the people waiting in line at DMV offices and at the turnpike customer service center in Morrisville. And when things go wrong, maybe he’ll learn to say: “We’re sorry. We’ll try to do better.”

Make contact: 919-829-4527 or bruce.siceloff@ newsobserver.com. Please include address and daytime phone.

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