VDOT says issues with HOV tolling on I-66 outside the beltway is improving

May 5, 20240

Private operator Express Mobility Partners cites improved customer service, camera positioning as reasons behind the progress

 January 26, 2024

PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY, Va. — Editors Note: After this story was originally published, Express Mobility Partners provided additional information about William Lesser’s claims. The copy has now been updated.

Drivers claim they are getting ripped off by a well-known tolling system on a heavily traveled stretch of interstate in Northern Virginia. But officials with the Virginia Department of Transportation say problems with the private company that operates the EZ Pass Flex system on I-66 outside the beltway are improving.

“We’ve seen dramatic improvements in both the way they handle their disputes and they way they handle the calls that come into their call center,” said VDOT’s Division Administrator for Tolling Operations David Caudell.

The company, Express Mobility Partners or EMP, is supposed to use human eyes to double check photos used to determine if there are three or more people in a vehicle using an EZ Pass Flex transmitter to qualify for free rides in special HOV lanes on I-66 outside the beltway.

As WUSA9 first reported in September 2023, a number of families claim they were wrongly charged by the EZ Pass Flex system on I-66 outside the beltway. Most believe the problems arise when small children aren’t picked up by the system.

“They’re not playing by their own rules,” said Prince William County resident William Lesser who has five kids, two family cars. Lesser claims he’s been wrongly charged for driving in the HOV lanes more than a dozen times since March.

In an email, a spokesperson for EMP told WUSA9, the company only has records of Lesser calling customer service one time, and that was due to insufficient funds in his EZ Pass account. EMP says company records show out of 105 trips, only on three (3) occasions was Mr. Lesser determined to be non-HOV and charged the toll; the last of these three times was May 14, 2023.

The remaining 78 trips were not self-declared HOV. These were non-HOV trips, according to EMP.

But Lesser is not the only one making that claim. The WUSA9 newsroom has received hundreds of emails and messages from people telling similar stories.

After our initial report, Caudill admitted the EZ Pass Flex program on I-66 outside the beltway was experiencing problems, adding its customer service response to families challenging charges had not been reliable enough. Caudill said EMP might have activated the system before it was ready but said VDOT was in “high level” talks with EMP to improve.

“We’re pleased to inform you that our Customer Service metrics have only continued to improve since opening and even more accuracy measures have been implemented over the past several months,” wrote EMP Corporate Affairs Director Nancy Smith. “We’ve worked to increase our Customer Service Team’s speed and capacity, resulting in an average dispute-resolution of less than two days and an average call-answer time of less than 45 seconds. We’ve enhanced our communications process with our partners at VDOT, and both EMP and VDOT are pleased at these improvements.

Smith said EMP has also improved the positioning of cameras at each toll gantry along the 22.5-mile span of the 66 Express Outside the Beltway to ensure optimal visibility into each vehicle.

“Some vehicle modifications and weather conditions may make it difficult to detect passengers in certain instances, but after a triple-blind review process benefit is granted to the driver if we cannot determine HOV ineligibility with certainty,” Smith told WUSA9.

In it’s email, EMP told WUSA9 according to its contract with VDOT, EMP is required to use cameras to automatically enforce VDOT’s HOV3+ policy on the 66 Express Outside the Beltway. EMP says as part of its internal checks and enhancements to our customer service to ensure greater accuracy of our HOV enforcement, the company has added a triple-blind human review process of all images of all HOV-declared trips.

But in email-after-email drivers in Northern Virginia tell WUSA9 the problems have not been fixed. Caudell said with roughly 200,000 people a month using those EX Pass Flex transponders to claim free HOV’s rides, there will always be some error. Caudell estimates those mistakes are less than 2%.

“Unfortunately, there’s a subset of motorists who falsely declare and that subset is not a small number,” Caudell said. “The result is that congestion will form in the Express lanes and they will be not paying their share of the toll. In fact, they’ll be riding toll free.

John Ley

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