Accounting glitches on Highway 407greenspun.com : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread
February 23, 2000 Accounting glitches on Highway 407 soon to be a thing of the past, Harris pledges
LONDON, Ont. (CP) -- The Ontario government is putting a plan in gear to help commuters plagued by phantom fees and errant invoices from the province's only toll highway, says Premier Mike Harris. The province wants Highway 407's operating consortium to find out why some drivers are being billed for using a road they've never been on, while others never get their invoices, Harris said Wednesday. Many Ontario motorists are being forced to pay late fees or can't renew their licences as a result of not paying, the premier conceded during a campaign-style tour of this southwestern Ontario city. "A lot of people have bills and penalties they shouldn't have," he said. "We not only have to do a better job in the future, but we have to clean up this mess now."
The details are still being ironed out, but Harris -- who promised a formal announcement on the matter next week -- said anyone with an incorrect invoice or who's facing penalties as a result of not getting one will not be forced to pay. Part of the problem arises from the fact that even though it's a privately owned highway, the province still provides licencing information to the operator, 407 ETR Concession Co. Ltd., for enforcement purposes, in exchange for an undisclosed fee.
It's not appropriate for the government to be acting as a powerful collection agency for the company without a quasi-judicial body to ensure the collection measures are justified, said David Leonhardt, an Ontario spokesman for the Canadian Automobile Association. "There has to be due process in the system," Leonhardt said. If motorists are unable to appeal their penalties, there's no incentive to fix the problem, he added. "It's a profit centre for them, because they know they will get that money."
The problem isn't just nickels and dimes, either, said Leonhardt. One commuter who complained to the CAA had his vehicle mistakenly classified by the system as a tractor-trailer, and his monthly bill jumped from $30 to more than $800 as a result.
The road north of Toronto is the first fully electronic toll highway in North America, built to ease traffic snarls along Highway 401, Canada's busiest and the only corridor into Canada from Detroit. Motorists anxious to sort out the confusion have also reported having problems getting through on the company's toll-free phone line.
When complaints began surfacing earlier this year, 407 ETR began upgrading its telephone and computer hardware and hiring more customer service staff to deal with an increase in the volume of calls.
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), February 23, 2000
Today's Issue Back Issues
February 25, 2000 Brakes go on 407 licence suspensions Sort out problems with toll fee collections, province tells owners
By Caroline Mallan Toronto Star Queen's Park Bureau Chief A fee dispute with the owners of Highway 407 will no longer cost Ontario motorists the right to renew their licence plates.
The provincial government announced yesterday that it will stop refusing to renew the plates of people who have not paid their toll fees after taking trips on the 69-kilometre stretch of road.
Drivers who use the toll highway have complained loudly that if their 407 bills are wrong, they cannot get through to 407 International Inc. by telephone to correct the problem and are, instead, forced to pay an erroneous bill or risk driving with expired plates.
To date, more than 80,000 Ontarians have been forced to settle their bills and pay a $30 penalty charge in order to renew their plates and another 110,000 were facing the same situation.
Late yesterday, Transportation Minister David Turnbull announced that until the owners of the highway sort out their communications problems, the province will no longer be withholding plate renewals. He did not say when plate suspensions will resume.
``We have suspended it until such a time as they have completely implemented all the ways to completely resolve these matters,'' Turnbull said in an interview. ``We heard the complaints and, when we had absolute proof of the problems, we immediately contacted them to discuss them.''
The change in policy came after Premier Mike Harris hinted earlier in the week that his government would act on the litany of complaints from motorists frustrated by hours of busy signals at 407 International.
Turnbull said his ministry and 407 International have worked together to come up with a new billing procedure and to set up an independent arbitrator for motorists.
``What we're putting in place is very, very strong protection for the public . . .This is a good day for motorists,'' he said.
Josi Maria Lopez de Fuentes, President and CEO of 407 International, said in an interview that his company is committed to solving its problems and plans to have a new call centre up and running by next week with 55 operators - double the current number.
``This is a big problem that we have, we are totally aware of it and we do not like it,'' Lopez de Fuentes said, adding that the company is also working on an Internet customer service option he hopes will be in place by the end of the year.
But Lopez de Fuentes said the company expects the province to reinstate the plate suspensions once the problems are cleared, in about four to eight weeks.
``This is something that we need for the people who choose not to pay,'' he said. ``You need something to get the money back, and this is an element that cannot be changed.''
Last year the company issued $2.15 billion of bonds, which included a landmark initial public offering of $1.1 billion of bonds, making it the largest single corporate bond offering in Canada.
Proceeds were applied to pay down the $2.3 billion owing to finance the acquisition of the highway, and the stipulation that the government would act as the highway's collector was a key ingredient in the bond issue.
David Leonhardt of the Canadian Automobile Association said he was relieved that the government listened to the people who use the highway.
Meanwhile, the province is proceeding with controversial plans to have all of Ontario highways maintained by private firms by year's end, despite the fact there is no public proof it saves money.
Deputy transportation minister Jan Rush told the Legislature's public accounts committee yesterday about 85 per cent of provincial highways are being privately maintained, The Star's Richard Brennan reports.
By the end of the year, all of them should be, she said, even though a pilot project in southwestern Ontario won't be completed until March 31.
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), February 26, 2000.