JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The I-TEAM gets results for a Jacksonville driver who was puzzled after getting a bill in the mail from a toll road in Miami – as she doesn’t drive outside of Northeast Florida. What News4Jax learned highlights imperfections in the new, high-tech toll system coming to Jacksonville this year.
When Jacksonville’s tolls came down in 1989, drivers paid at the familiar toll booths along expressways around Jacksonville and across the state. Now, with the latest advances with the SunPass system, drivers can pay tolls electronically without stopping. This system is coming to Jacksonville’s First Coast Expressway and I-295 express lanes and is already in use along the Florida Turnpike and toll roads in the Tampa, Orlando and Miami areas.
It was one of those Miami-area toll roads that was the source of the problems for 70-year-old Gwendolyn Anderson when she received a toll-by-plate bill in the mail.
“I knew I hadn’t been to Miami, I had never driven to Miami,” Anderson told the I-TEAM.
According to a SunPass toll enforcement invoice, Anderson owed money for driving along a road managed by the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, as the invoice read, “The vehicle identified in this image is either registered, lease or was rented by you.” The invoice listed Anderson’s license plate, but the photo on the invoice showed an SUV that appeared to be a Hummer – which is not the type of car that Anderson drives.
The invoice was bewildering for Anderson and her daughter Sheryl who were worried someone had duplicated the plate for nefarious reasons.
“I wouldn’t want to look up one day and the police officers are at my door, looking for me for a crime someone committed with that tag number, and that’s quite possible,” Gwendolyn Anderson said.
“I’m thinking, if they get into an accident, if something happens, then they are automatically going to look at my mom’s registration,” said Sheryl Anderson, echoing her mother’s concerns.
When a second toll invoice arrived at their Northside home, the Andersons noticed the invoice had been paid in full – but they had not paid a dime. The two then went to a local DMV office and were told there was nothing they could do besides filing an online complaint and waiting.
“We felt really lost because we could not get anyone to listen and try to understand what was going on,” Gwendolyn Anderson said.
So, the I-TEAM reached out the Florida Department of Transportation to find out what really happened in the Andersons’ case. According to FDOT, the SunPass automatic tolling system has a 99.5% success rate. But with millions of invoices generated electronically each month, they admit the system makes about 50,000 mistakes a month.
The invoice sent to Gwendolyn Anderson listed a Florida license plate of 009 5QZ, which is the plate on her PT Cruiser. But a closer look at a higher-quality photo from the invoice showed the plate seen in Miami is actually 009 50Z – one character off. By the way, it's not possible to confuse the letter O with a zero on a Florida license plate, as the state's tags are only manufactured with zeros.
FDOT told the I-TEAM that if a driver disputes an invoice, a person will look at the plates. In the Andersons’ case, a customer service representative investigated the dispute, confirmed the plate was misread and cleared the charge. An invoice was then reissued to the correct driver.
An FDOT spokesperson also told us that in cases where a driver calls to try to find out what the cause was behind an incorrect invoice, the state can’t give out information if it involves someone else’s account.
Finding out that the invoice was the result of a computer mistake put to rest the Andersons’ fears of someone using their license plate for something criminal.
“It was a very scary thing,” Gwendolyn Anderson said.
How to dispute a toll charge
FDOT told the I-TEAM that if a customer has a concern, question or wants to file a dispute, they can visit SunPass.com or call the customer service line at 888-TOLL-FLA (888-865-5352). According to the agency, depending on the customer’s concern, the process will vary at that point.
In the event that a license plate is registered with SunPass, the customer would not receive an invoice but the charge would be posted to their account. FDOT said those charges can be disputed in the same way and that the process is faster but added that these errors are more rare.
Tolls coming to Northeast Florida
A spokesperson for the local FDOT district told the I-TEAM that two toll roads currently under construction in our area should open sometime this spring: the First Coast Expressway and the I-295 express lanes in the Mandarin area. A second section of express lanes along I-295, from State Road 9B to Butler Boulevard, is scheduled to open by the end of 2019.
FDOT told the I-TEAM that becoming a SunPass transponder customer can help reduce the potential for billing errors. Two types of transponders are available: a mini-transponder that adheres to the car for $4.99 and a transferable transponder for $19.99. With the mini-transponder, SunPass adds a $5 credit to the account once the transponder is activated.
The SunPass also allows drivers to pay a discounted rate of up to 25% off on the state’s toll roads. The Florida SunPass also currently works on all toll roads in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina.
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