Trucker busts SunPass overcharging for tolls

By David Tanner, Land Line associate editor | 12/4/2013

John Northrup thought his go-around with SunPass this past year was over and done with. Turns out it wasn’t.

The car hauler from Plant City, Fla., is once again battling the toll collection agency over what SunPass admits to as “overcharges” on Northrup’s account.

For reasons that differ depending on who is doing the talking at SunPass or the Florida Department of Transportation that oversees toll collection, Northrup’s five-axle car carrier is occasionally charged for six, seven or even more axles when he passes through a toll collection point.

“Fifteen months ago, we caught them overcharging our account,” says Northrup, an OOIDA member who ran four axles back then but discovered numerous charges for five, six or more axles on his SunPass statements. He says the agency responded to his complaints after he threatened to get local TV news to do an expose.

When he upgraded to a five-axle combo in Nov. 2012, Northrup informed the agency of the change, and says SunPass temporarily put him at ease by telling him they would monitor his account for overages. Northrup went about his business until recently when he decided to check again.

“Well, when it was time for me to update my IRP account tag with them, I decided to go look and see how they were doing,” Northrup told Land Line.

Northrup says he found another batch of errors, nearly 200 in total, each one related to axle count.

“That’s a 20 percent error rate,” he says.

When he contacted SunPass customer service, Northrup says he was initially told the agency would only credit his account for three months’ worth of errors. Applying the pressure once more, Northrup says he got SunPass to go back and review an entire year’s worth of transactions.

He says he received a $109 credit for a three-month period and is waiting to see what the promised review of the previous nine months will produce.

“If you don’t start shrieking and hollering, you never get a call back,” Northrup said.

Explanations from SunPass vary. Northrup says was told repeatedly, especially early on, that the overcharges were likely the result of someone tailgating his truck through the collection point.

“So if I went through in my five-axle tractor-trailer, and you followed me through in your two-axle four-wheeler and were tailgating me, it wouldn’t separate the vehicles and therefore I would get charged extra axles,” Northrup says, recounting the explanation.

“Now, depending on how the machine reads, I don’t know how 107 times I got charged for one extra axle, and 35 times for two extra axles,” he said. “Twenty-one times I got charged for three extra axles, several times for four.”

Northrup doesn’t buy the tailgater theory, and neither does Sonyha Rodriguez-Miller, a spokeswoman for SunPass and FDOT in Fort Lauderdale.

“That doesn’t sound right to me,” Rodriguez-Miller told Land Line, but that’s as far as her explanation would go. She says she cannot recall hearing about overcharging being a regular occurrence.

“That doesn’t sound like anything that happens with any frequency,” Rodriguez-Miller said.

The agency acknowledges that Northrup’s account has been overcharged.

“Mr. Northrup is being refunded for overcharges. Currently, his issue is under review with our tech team,” Rodriguez-Miller stated in a follow-up email. “Since we have not identified the cause of the issue, there is no other information we can share at this time.”

In a report aired by WFLA News Channel 8 in Tampa Bay, SunPass said the overcharges were the result of a hardware issue, not a SunPass issue or software issue. A SunPass/FDOT spokeswoman told the news reporter that the agency was checking into whether the car carrier, which sits low to the ground, may be “confusing the loop detectors.”

Northrup just wants a consistent answer. Lately, Northrup says SunPass has told him his issue could be about truck weight.

“It’s a car carrier. Sometimes it’s over. We try to get the curb weights. The other day I figured I’d be 130 (pounds) over, and ended up being 510 over,” he said.

“(SunPass) said if you’re going to be running heavy, you’re going to have to call ahead so we can adjust the readings on it,” Northrup says, recalling that particular explanation. “I go through 25 tolls on a Tuesday. How do I call 25 different tollbooths or know which tollbooth I’m even going to be going through to call ahead and tell (them) what time I’m going to come so (they) can adjust my vehicle through that toll booth?”

Northrup wonders how many truckers are getting overcharged.

“They’re stepping up to make mine right, but what about all the rest? This is about everything across the board. This is about a lack of trust with the agency,” Northrup said.

The 10-year trucking veteran says he has taken the issue to state lawmakers.

Florida state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, told WFLA that he plans to ask for an audit of the way SunPass counts axles and bills truckers.

A spokesman for Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi says their office has not handled any complaints about SunPass and deferred questions about oversight to the Florida Department of Transportation.

Rodriguez-Miller tells Land Line that FDOT and SunPass review complaints on an individual basis and work directly with the customer to rectify any problems.

“If there’s an issue, if somebody has an issue with their account, the folks at SunPass will look at it,” Rodriguez-Miller said. “It’s customer service.”

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