MDTA service compares to failed Maryland health exchange.
One day in late May 2014, my wife drove back to Maryland from Connecticut through seven toll booths that use E-ZPass: two in New York, three in New Jersey, one in Delaware, and two in Maryland. Unbeknownst to her, the E-ZPass unit in her car, which was attached with a suction cup to the windshield, had become disengaged. The result was that beginning about a week later we started receiving toll violation notices from the four states she passed through. Here were the tolls and the penalties. The penalties only applied if the toll wasn’t paid within some weeks of receiving the notice:
- New York: $1.75 toll ($25 penalty), $13 toll ($50 penalty)
- New Jersey: $7.25 toll ($50 penalty), $4 toll ($50 penalty), $4 toll ($25 penalty)
- Delaware: $4 toll ($25 penalty)
- Maryland: $12 toll ($50 penalty), $6 toll ($50 penalty).
Each state administers the E-ZPass on its own, including its own mailed E-ZPass violation notices, telephone E-ZPass hotline, and E-ZPass online payment service. Consequently, responding to the violation notices from the four states proved to be a good, if inadvertent, controlled experiment to compare the customer service in the four states.
The result: Maryland gets an “F”.
I received the violation notice from Maryland on June 16, 2014—at least a week after the last violation notice of any of the other three states. The violation notices from the other three states included a return envelope, as well as a detachable coupon, if one chose to pay by mail. Maryland included the detachable coupon but no accompanying return envelope.
In the three other states, I was easily able to get a live customer service agent to explain the situation and pay the toll. Only in Maryland did I get lost in telephone push-button hell. If there was a way to talk to a human being, I couldn’t find it.
The Maryland E-ZPass website wouldn’t work for paying the toll. When I tried to use it, I got the message: “We’re sorry, the system is unavailable. Please try again later.” See the screenshot below.
After I used the telephone push button system to pay the fine and enter my credit card number, the computerized answering service ended the call with a quick reading of a long reference number (at least ten digits) with no advance warning and no opportunity to repeat it. I was only able to write down the last six digits and wasn’t even certain of those.
In recent memory, the most famous customer service snafu in Maryland has been the roll-out of Maryland’s health insurance exchange for purchasing health insurance. This Maryland Transportation Authority incident suggests that that snafu may be only the tip of an iceberg.
One reason I make that inference is that I frequently make Maryland Public Information Act requests and have been astounded when told in response of computer systems that don’t retain records of public documents used in making important public decisions. It’s as though Maryland belongs to some pre-historic era when there wasn’t even a system of writing to record documents, let alone recently purchased multi-million dollar computer systems.
But for those computer systems and the type of information I requested, I tend to assume that the systems were purposefully designed to minimize public accountability. Here the problem appears to have been of a different type: shear incompetence combined with a genuine insensitivity to customer service.
1) Snider, J.H., Maryland Transportation Authority Gets An “F” For Customer Service, Annapolis Patch, June 17, 2014.
2) Snider, J.H., Maryland Transportation Authority Gets An “F” For Customer Service, Watchdog Wire, June 17, 2014.