December 9th, 2010 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

flatlineSing, Goddesss. Sing the wonders of the computer age…at least the 20th Century version.

Confounded by surprising warnings and inconsistencies of the MA Pike system, I peeked under the lid of their internet/accounting system. It was scary.

Starting the morning of 12/7, I did as I do monthly, verify the online only report of our FAST LANE account. That is tied into our two transponders. I check because I had read of common errors, including misreads through muddy windshields and billing at truck rates for cars.

Issue 1: Uxorial unit and middle son had driven to far Western New York State nearly a week before the billing notice. While the MA tolls appeared, no NY ones did.

Issue 2: Yesterday, three of us drove a little West to find an evergreen to kill for our Christmas revels (unsuccessfully as it turns out; the so-called farms were not perking during the week). At five FAST-LANE booths in or out, we got yellow lights with LOW BAL. messages. Yet, we are on automatic replenishment to a credit card, a card which is working for all other purposes.

Issue 3: At the sixth booth, leaving the Pike at 128, none of the three lights flashed. Rolling through the booth, we did not hear the buzzer which goes off if someone skips paying or does not have a functioning transponder.

For the last, we pulled over and went to the little office at the plaza. There a pleasant fellow, whose early dinner I had interrupted judging from his jaw action, explained nothing but tried. He said the data gathering and billing were totally separate from the toll takers and other plaza functions. He surmised that if we didn’t hear any warning sounds that either we recorded accurately or the equipment was failing to record or react. He figured the lack of lights was a simple malfunction of the plaza equipment. He said to go home and call in the morning.

It turns out that after that call this morning, I conclude that I had inadvertently been exposed to the slacker culture of the FAST LANE system. Do they ever not get databases, computers and networked communication.

The short of it is that I had no problems…so long as I was willing to wait for the Pike people to catch up, and I did not travel so far as to overrun their ability to realize they had taken money from my credit card.

The cold, but seemingly knowledgeable support woman had heard these questions before. The deal is:

  • Yield the password and account number to get help. You must give the operator your allegedly secure info to get any help. Then, I suppose, you trust the Pike not to goof on your account. I’ll be changing mine.
  • Three days and sometimes longer are necessary for any out-of-state systems to bill FAST LANE and maybe longer for this to appear in the online reports.
  • 24 hours and sometimes longer will pass before instate transactions appear online.
  • 24 hours and sometimes longer are necessary for account replenishment to appear online or to get to the computers linked to the plaza controls.
  • Yellow lights are what the Pike people refer to as a courtesy. That is, they have billed your account so that it is below $10, there’s nothing you can do about it, and you never know if you’ll get the red light and buzzer before one computer in their system tells the others that they have sucked money from your credit card.

This is 1990s technology at its most mediocre. There is absolutely no reason they can’t conduct instate transactions in real time, either recording transponder charges or knowing when they have billed your credit card. You should be able to log into your FAST LANE account seconds after passing a booth and see the charge.

I find it a little hard to believe they can’t clear other states’ compatible systems in under 24 hours — 72 is likewise very primitive in internet terms. Whichever state(s) systems are clogging the works need upgrading immediately.

If MA has any fear that your credit card won’t pay them, they can check that immediately online and automatically, as every online vendor as well as any restaurant or store in the world can. Get with the program!

My eyes roll repeatedly thinking that they demand your login to access your account. That is a failure of both concept and execution. Why feign security if your system requires support minions to break it with every call?

Perhaps equipment, as the set of lights at the Southernmost booth at 90 onto 128 did, can fail. Yet, even my car has automatic electronic notification when lights fail. Plus, humans at the plaza see and pass by the array regularly. They should be permitted to notice equipment failures.

I’m pretty sure this junior-high level IT implementation could get quick fixes. I’m positive that any decent network administrator could diagnose the issues and specify their solutions.

Looking at this morning’s online statement, I see that the account replenished five days before the warning light began to appear. I won’t call to ask what happens when a driver gets caught in the limbo of LOW BAL. when there is none in reality. I’d bet that they would happily sent a trooper down the road behind you for allegedly running the toll, leaving you to sort it out later, maybe with the help of a lawyer.

The FAQ at the site is not reassuring, to wit:

If you chose the manual replenishment method for paying your FAST LANE tolls, you are being notified that you have a low balance and that you should replenish your account before it falls to an insufficient amount. Otherwise you will be issued a violation, which will result in a $50.00 fine per occurrence. If you chose an automatic replenishment method (e.g., credit card, bank account) to pay your tolls, your account should be automatically replenished that evening. If you continue to get the “LOW BAL” light call the FAST LANE Service Center at 1-877-627-7745.

In other words, they take no responsibility for their failure to join the 21st Century in processing transactions they control in a timely manner. Recording transactions? Communicating charges and replenishment? Sharing data on its own network? Well, if you have to, when the Pike gets around to it. Yawn.

FAST LANE = sloooooooow, low tech.

Tags: harrumphharrumpherMassPikeFAST LANEdatabaseinefficiency


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