Transportation secretary answers questions about I-4, SunPass in exclusive interview

'I am not here trying to lay blame. I'm trying to move forward'

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida's new secretary of transportation Kevin Thibault inherited a lot of problems and challenges from the past administration when he took charge in January.

One of the most glaring was the customer service nightmare that resulted from last summer's botched SunPass system upgrade.

"One of the things I told my team when I came on in January is I could see there are issues," Thibault said. "But I am not here trying to lay blame. I'm trying to move forward; trying to get a product working to where it needs to be working."

He said he has heard from both drivers and lawmakers about their concerns about the current SunPass contract with Conduent.

[RELATED: SunPass charges continue to trickle in after outagePresident of company under fire for SunPass upgrade failures admits problems]

"Every month there is a performance that they have to meet," Thibault said. "It is now in the operating period. So if they're not meeting those performance expectations there are appropriate penalties that will be assessed to them."

Thibault acknowledged that there were big failures when it came to the customer service side of SunPass last summer, with several people complaining about long wait times both in person and up to  four hours on the phone. 

But Thibault said the agency is getting results by forcing Conduent to add more people to improve their response to customer complaints.

"They increased the customer service representatives to the point now that the wait is less than five minutes. Sometimes even less than a minute, so it's really gotten down to where it needs to be," Thibault said.

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But even with that, Thibault admits Conduent is still not hitting all its performance benchmarks when it comes to customer service response times. So Conduent could face even more fines and penalties than the $8.3 million it is currently facing. 

"Their contract does allow us the opportunity to assess more penalties if they are not meeting performance," Thibault said.

News 6 checked the state's contract tracking system and discovered Conduent just got paid more than $1.2 million on Wednesday. Even though the vendor currently faces millions in fines, it is still getting paid on the contract. Despite all the failures.

That's because the state's contract has protections for the contractor, too, and stipulates the agency can only assess a 25% percent penalty for Conduent failing to meet its standards.

"For us to be able to meet these transportation needs, we can't do it alone. We have to do it in a partnership," Thibault said.

Another challenge the agency is facing, delays along the I-4 ultimate project.

Thibault said the Florida Department of Transportation is doing everything it can to help the contractor stay as close to the original deadline as possible, and holding the contractor financially responsible for any over-budget items it incurs.

[READ: FDOT looking at effects of flooding on I-4 after ponding closes several lanesHeavy rain wreaks havoc on I-4 in Orlando]

"It is a little bit longer than we anticipated," Thibault said. "But again, what we are trying to get them to focus on is opening up the regular travel lanes that people have expected. The three lanes that they have in most cases in that direction. As you notice there's some sections like towards Kirkman Road, you can see it's pretty much in the final configuration. So we're trying to get the contractor to at least get the rest of the corridor that way so then they can focus their resources on the median, and finishing it all up."

Thibault said his hope is that by the end of 2021, all I-4 general lanes will be open.

As for the recent flooding that happened along Princeton Street in Orlando,Thibault said it's handled with contractors being ordered to clear out built up silt and sand clogging the permanent and temporary drains around the area.

We also asked the transportation secretary about SunRail, and the recent increase in deadly crashes along the tracks.

He said his agency is focusing on adding safety measures and looking to other rail agencies nationwide to see what works best to get drivers and pedestrians to stay clear of the tracks.

"Making sure they understand when we say 'stop here,' not where the tracks are," Thibault said.

Thibault is no stranger to the agency he now leads.

He spent 16 years working there before in other lower leadership roles. He encourages all drivers using Florida roads to contact the agency with any questions or concerns.

"For all the customers that are watching this, please call," Thibault said. "The biggest challenge we have as an agency is to continue to meet the needs of the growth of this state. Our mission at the end of the day is helping efficiently and effectively move people and goods."