Major accounting error and pilling problems impact Canada' first electronic toll highway : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Hwy. 407 suspends plate-denial process

TORONTO (CP) - The owner of Canada's first fully electronic toll highway is retooling its collection procedures in order to end a growing public relations nightmare for the Ontario government.

Highway 407's private operator, 407 International Inc., said Thursday it is temporarily suspending a policy of asking the province to refuse licence plate renewals to motorists with overdue accounts.

It's in response to a flood of complaints about accounting snafus from motorists, some of whom were getting invoices from a highway they've never even seen, let alone driven on.

As of Wednesday, some 110,000 customers were being denied as a result of not paying their 407 bills, even though some of them may have been billed in error, the company said.

To date, some 80,000 more have opted to settle their accounts and pay a $30 administration fee in order to renew their plates.

The company has no idea how many were billed in error, largely because of technical problems with its customer support system, president Jose Maria Lopez de Fuentes said in a statement.

''We think that some of these people may have legitimate concerns about their invoices, but they couldn't get anyone on the phone to hear them,'' Lopez de Fuentes said.

''They couldn't reach us by phone and were given little option but to pay their bills.''

Word of the changes came just one day after Premier Mike Harris declared the highway's billing system a ''screw-up'' and promised swift action to fix the mess.

Customers with bills they believe were incorrect will be able to access a ''dispute resolution process'' whether they have paid them or not, the company said. Plate renewals were reinstated Thursday.

Anyone who has their bill reviewed and is found to still owe money will again face denials in the future until the bill is paid.

Transportation Minister David Turnbull said the company has installed a new phone system and beefed up staff levels in order to deal with customer complaints.

Customers will also be able to file appeals to an independent arbitrator via e-mail, fax or regular mail, Turnbull said.

But critics said Thursday that the government should not be in the business of enforcing bill collection for private companies and should cancel plate denial for 407 users altogether.

It may well be unconstitutional to deny a motorist the right to drive their car simply because they haven't paid a bill to a private company, Liberal transportation critic Michael Gravelle said.

''The government decided to act as a Cadillac collection agency for the 407,'' Colle said. ''This temporary suspension of vehicle plate denial has to be a permanent suspension. It's totally inappropriate.''

The province, which sold the road to a consortium of private operators for $3.1 billion last spring, will also appoint an independent auditor who will ensure through random audits at least four times a year that the system is working smoothly, Turnbull added.

The road north of Toronto was built to ease traffic snarls along Highway 401, Canada's busiest highway. It netted the government a profit of about $1.6 billion.

-- Carl Jenkins (, February 25, 2000

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