Public Meeting at the Offices of the 407 ETR Thursday, January 12th, 2012 at 3 PM

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This is a message of a public meeting at the offices of the 407 ETR, Thursday, January 12th, 2012 at 3 PM.  

To all members of the group “Stop the 407 ETR’s Abuse of Power”,  the 407 ETR, all media and politicians.  A small group of members from “Stop the 407 ETR’s Abuse of Power” will be attending 407 ETR’s offices at 6300 Steeles Avenue West, Woodbridge, Ontario, L4H 1J1 at 3 PM, Thursday, January 12th, 2012.

Highway 407 is a public highway.  The 407 ETR has been operating this public highway since 1999.  We do not have to rehash how controversial this has been throughout the years.  In a nutshell, the public has had a problem with the operations of this highway since the 407 ETR has been at the helm.  One of the most controversial problems the public has had with the operators of this public highway has been the billing practices that remain unchecked to this very day.

Sandford Borins is a Professor of Management at the University of Toronto’s Joseph L. Rotman School of Management and the Department of Management, University of Toronto-Scarborough. He was the founding chair of the latter and served in that capacity from 1991 to 2003. He has been a visiting professor at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University and Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California at Berkeley, and Scholar-in-Residence in the Ontario Cabinet Office.  He was a member of the board of directors of the Ontario Transportation Capital Corporation, responsible for developing Ontario’s Highway 407.   He co-authored the book, “If You Build It… Business, Government and Ontario” with Chandran Mylvaganam who was Chief of Staff to three Ministers of Transportation in the Ontario government from 1990 to 1995.

On January 29th, 2009 Sandford Borins blogged, “Highway 407 East, Will They Still Come?” In where he discussed how decision makers have been trying to figure out how to run a half-private, half-public highway.  He also speculated on who would build the extension that is taking place now to the east of the current 108 KM’s.  I am going to tie in the construction of the eastern part of this highway because the public has not been informed on how/who the billing will be handled by other than the politicans promising that it will remain in public hands.

On December 3rd, 2009 Sandford Borins blogged, “Highway 407 Revisted” where he discusses a segment on Goldhawk live where callers were irate about the billing practices of the 407 ETR.  He said that in 2007, “the operator’s spokesman told us that approximately 4 per cent of 407 ETR’s traffic is not billed, which includes both licenses that are not readable and those that are not billable because they are from jurisdictions that have not agreed to make their vehicle license data available. License plate denial is a very powerful mechanism for ensuring that Ontarians pay up, but of course it doesn’t extend beyond Ontario’s borders.”

Sandford Borins “heard numerous complaints on the program … the most common complaint … the operator was deliberately taking its time billing, letting interest accumulate at a very profitable 27 percent per annum, and then using the threat of plate denial to collect.”  to which he added that if these accusations are true “they are a legitimate public policy concern”.  He goes on to say in his blog that “Ontario Transport Minister Jim Bradley, citing the province’s failure to challenge the original privatization agreement in court, said that there was essentially nothing that could be done. The other panelists, myself included, weren’t so sure. Two possible approaches are suasion and legislation. Suasion would involve the government (perhaps the Ministry of Consumer Services rather than Ministry of Transport) gathering information about these complaints and presenting them to 407 ETR’s ombudsman and then the operator.”  We agree with Sandford Borins and I can personally confirm that the Ministry of Consumer Services will not even take our complaints.

The only option the public has at this point is to go to the 407 ETR’s offices, with the media and speak to them about this very serious public concern.  Kevin Sack, VP of Communications and Government Relations so far has refused to see us as a group, with the media, however, we told him this is necessary because this is a very special issue and it deserves his attention to come to an understanding of the problems and that if the 407 ETR has nothing to hide then it should not be a problem.  We have all our documentation and can articulate very well what the issues are.

For the past 7 years many of the members from the group “Stop the 407 ETR’s Abuse of Power” have been writing to their MPP’s, the Premier, the Transportation Minister, different ones within the Ministry of Transportation, the 407 ETR’s offices at all levels and most recently The Provincial Ombudsman (not to be confused with the 407 ETR’s Ombudsman) with regards to the billing practices of the 407 ETR and the Ministry of Transportation’s lack of action.  We have been questioning how the Ministry of Transportation can legally collect on this private corporation’s behalf without any burden of proof that lawful charges exist?  The answers we have been given has been unsatisfactory because as you will see, the Ministry of Transportation does not require the 407 ETR to provide any proof of lawful charges.  We believe that this indeed is a legitimate public policy concern that the Ministry of Transportation must address immediately.  The public is being put at a disadvantage when we have a billing issue through no fault of our own.  The amounts being charged by the 407 ETR are not legally owed by us because they were caused by the 407 ETR’s administration of the operations of this public highway.

For years, one of the most popular answers we have been given by the Ministry of Transporation is “the ministry is responsible for monitoring 407 ETR’s compliance with the Highway 407 Act, 1998 and the Concession and Ground Lease Agreement, 407 ETR is a private company responsible for establishing its own business practices”.  That was it.  No further explanation was given although we articulated in many ways that the 407 ETR was supressing invoices and sending them out years later with exorbitant interest charges tacked on.

Most recently, a member of our group got this answer from the Ministry of Transportation when inquiring how the Ministry receives non-payment information from the 407 ETR.  The Ministry of Transportation said that they receive “a statement from the Chief Financial Officer at 407 ETR certifying that the 407 ETR has complied with the requirements of the Act in the issuance of notices” and when questioned about  how the Ministry of Transportation regulates that the 407  ETR is billing consumers properly the answer received was that ” the Act and associated regulations task the toll operator with maintaining the safe and efficient operation of the highway. The Act provides for specific steps and responsibilities for the 407 ETR, including the delivery of various invoices and notices to be sent to customers where tolls are unpaid. It also provides a mechanism for customers to dispute charges with 407 ETR.”

Given many of the public’s experience with the 407 ETR’s billing issues, the statement received by the Ministry of Transportation from the 407 ETR’s Chief Financial Officer is not worth the paper it is written on and the dispute mechanism they speak of is unsatisfactory.

While the Ministry of Transportation recognizes that we should be able to deal with the 407 ETR with respects to these issues, the Ministry of Transportation ignores the fact that the 407 ETR is abusing the power of Plate Denial to force people into paying unlawful charges and that by honoring the 407 ETR’s request for Plate Denial under these circumstances is a legitimate public policy concern they must address at once.

Speaking in generalities, when a person is put into Plate Denial, they are desperate to be able to legally plate their vehicle because for most, their lively hood and freedoms are affected by not being able to license their vehicles legally.  This amounts to extortion because many people have been forced to pay these unlawful charges so they can legally drive their vehicles.  For those that refuse to pay these unlawful charges and that have the option of putting their vehicles in someone elses name and legally insuring and plating their vehicles… they can not find or afford suitable legal representation to deal with these issues.  The 407 ETR knows it and because the Ministry of Transportation has not acted in the public interest with respect to this legitimate public policy concern, the 407 ETR continues to abuse this provision the government gave them.  This is irresponsible governing of this public highway and must be corrected immediately.

Due to faults within the 407 ETR’s administration, invoices/bills are suppressed for many years, then sent out with just a number on an invoice with absolutely no details/explanation whatsoever of what the company is trying to charge the customer for.   The 407 ETR’s defence has always been that if you own the plate, you are responsible for any charges incurred and interest, however,the 407 ETR refuses to disclose what makes up the charges until in some cases the customer goes to the Privacy Commissioner.  The 407 ETR never seems to acknowledge that their practice of invoice suppression has caused an unfair, unlawful advantage for their company to collect thousands in interest charges that they would not have been able to charge had they billed their customers correctly.   Regardless of the 407 ETR’s reasons for supressing an invoice, it is their 100% responsibility to ensure that they are billing the right customer and that they are sending the bill to the customer’s proper address.  They have access to that information from the Ministry of Transportation.  It is the 407 ETR’s sole responsibility to access that information.  The plate is registered with the Ministry of Transportation and that’s how the 407 ETR gets the information to bill its customers… according to their plates.  In most cases,  customers were not even aware a bill existed until many years later. The 407 ETR expects prompt payment of charges incurred, it is only fair that the public expect to be billed promptly.  In the abscence of that, the Ministry of Transportation must not leave a 407 ETR customer in Plate Denial until the company fixes this issue it is having with its customer. It is not lawful for the 407 ETR to collect exorbitant interest charges on amounts their customers never knew existed and that are not properly and fully disclosed.

The 407 ETR says that they are operating an open access, all-electronic toll road and they say that they cannot suspend or bar any customer from using the highway.   This is correct, but not because of it being an open access, electronic toll road but because this highway is a public highway that their company is operating.  The public has a right to travel on this highway.  The 407 ETR has been entrusted by the public to operate this new style of toll road.  If they can not bill their customers promptly and correctly, then the public has the right to demand that billing be handed over to another party independant of the 407 ETR’s administration.  This will avoid any vested interest in keeping the status quo or there is always the unpopular alternative… to put up manned toll booths so these billing issues will no longer occur.

The 407 ETR says that it’s important for its customers to keep the 407 ETR advised of their current address and to budget, plan for, and pay their tolls promptly after receiving an invoice.  It is the 407 ETR’s 100% responsibility to make sure they are accessing the proper information to ensure they are billing the correct person that owns the plate and that the bill is going to the correct address the plate is registered to with the Ministry of Transportation.   A private corporation is 100% responsible for protecting their bottom line.  It is not the public’s responsibility.  Although there have been improvements in the 407 ETR’s Customer Service, more improvements are required to protect the public from the abuses of power currently occuring.

A small group of members from “Stop the 407 ETR’s Abuse of Power” will be visiting the 407 ETR’s offices at 6300 Steeles Avenue West, Woodbridge, Ontario, L4H 1J1 at 3 PM, Thursday, January 12th, 2012.  All members of the media are invited to attend to cover this event.  So far, the 407 ETR is refusing to meet with us as a group, with the media.  They want to deal with everything separately as they will be able to control their message better.  We have all our documentation and encourage the 407 ETR to be open to this public meeting.  The only reason I can see the 407 ETR refusing to answer questions to us as a group, with the media present is that they have something to hide.  If this is the case than that gives the Ministry of Transportation all the reason to withdrawal all members of the public in Plate Denial until the 407 ETR is willing to address the issues.

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