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FDOT reveals new depth of SunPass financial problems

Florida’s Department of Transportation is acknowledging the 14-month-old “SunPass Saga,” created by contractor negligence and poor oversight, has left the agency $90 million short in toll collections. FDOT has not been able to say who will be responsible for the shortfalls, but indications point to taxpayers.

The $90 million figure, first reported by WTSP-TV Tuesday evening, confirms Florida Politics reporting from earlier in the month that revealed — despite agency efforts to shield its shortfalls — FDOT will have an eight-figure budget gap to fill due to under-collections. The agency’s “leakage” rate is significantly higher than normal because of its electronic tolling system and customer service meltdowns.

When asked in April about outstanding invoices, FDOT spokesperson Ann Howard told Florida Politics the agency had no way to tell its collection rate. But that wasn’t true, as FDOT told Fitch Ratings at the start of this year it had $74 million in uncollected balances, largely due to backlogged bills and account inaccuracies. Since then, agency insiders say many of the account issues have gotten worse.

FDOT’s outstanding balance will be reduced through collections efforts, but the lower FY19 income will affect the state’s ability to pay for new roads and supply its emergency reserves. It could potentially affect bond ratings as well.

Florida Politics asked FDOT on July 15 if contractor Conduent will be held responsible for the losses or if taxpayers, who have already had to deal with account and customer service nightmares, will be on the hook. The state has yet to respond.

Conduent getting paid

Florida’s enormous shortfall in collections appears to be exponentially greater than the $8.3 million in total fines Conduent has faced over the course of the 419-day drama. And while FDOT has announced it would rebid the SunPass contract several years from now — sooner than it had originally planned — it also increased the size of Conduent’s lucrative contract by another $15 million in the last year.

WTSP reported in 2018 how politically connected Conduent won a controversial procurement, then secured a sweetheart deal with the Rick Scott administration. When the state’s CFO later reviewed the contract, it found insufficient accountability measures in case Conduent failed to deliver an efficient system.

Conduent then failed to deliver.

Now, 419 days after the system was first taken offline for what was supposed to be just a six-day disruption, SunPass accountability is still lacking, although the Ron DeSantis administration says it is not done with discipline and penalties, pending the conclusion of its inspector general’s investigation.

Conduent is again getting paid on the SunPass contract, as well as on other FDOT contracts. The agency has not responded to a July 18 question inquiring how much Conduent is getting paid on its other contracts or if any of those will be terminated early.

FDOT obfuscation

Just as FDOT has shown little concern for its outstanding collections, it has shown little concern for outstanding record requests made by journalists.

Since the start of the SunPass Saga in June 2018, the agency has dragged its feet on public records requests, turning simple requests into painful monthslong battles. In several instances last year, the agency used misleading news releases in attempts to outflank investigative reports.

The lack of transparency dates back to the Scott administration, but it has continued under DeSantis’ watch. WTSP reported Monday it took seven weeks to get under-collection figures.

Florida Politics also has numerous outstanding requests regarding agency losses that have not yet been fulfilled:

  • On July 10, FDOT was asked about the cost of a plan to provide free transponders to Toll-by-Plate customers to help mitigate ongoing problems with the program. It appears taxpayers will foot the bill for the large expenditures, but 14 days later the agency has still not yet provided any detail.
  • On July 15, FDOT was asked about the significant problems with its Toll-by-Plate program, which accounts for more than 20% of all SunPass toll revenue. Nine days later, the agency has not yet provided any information.
  • On July 15, FDOT was asked how transparent it has been about its finances with bond analysts. Nine days later, the agency has not yet provided any documents.

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