Toll Interoperability: Not Ready For Drive Time

Editor’s Note: This is part of an ongoing series about the development and deployment of new tolling technologies and business processes, and their compatibility from state to state, as mandated by the 2012 highway funding reauthorization.

States Not Ready To Meet Original Congressional Deadline

AET sign and gantry on the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway

Signs point drivers with iPass or E-ZPass toward the electronic gantries on the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway, just east of Rockford, Illinois, on April 27, 2016. However, cash lanes are still separate and route drivers through manned booths.

State tolling agencies are not ready to meet an October 1 deadline to have their tolling payment systems compatible with each other, and it will likely be several weeks to a few months before the first interoperable tolling systems come online, according to Sharon Adair, Vice President of the Alliance for Toll Interoperability, or ATI, based in North Carolina. That means drivers with an E-ZPass, the most common electronic tolling system, will still not be able to use their transponders in states outside the E-ZPass network. The same situation exists for drivers who have transponders from other states, such as TxTag, from Texas, or SunPass, from Florida.

Adair said some interoperability will be in place on a limited basis, most likely by January, but none of the states will be fully integrated by that time, she said. “That looks like the timetable we are on,” Adair told TurnpikeInfo.com. “The deadline for all states to be interoperable by October will not be reachable for the majority of agencies, even as several are working diligently to comply with the mandate.”

That mandate is a single paragraph, found at the end of the section concerning tolling, Section 1512, of the 2012 highway funding reauthorization. The Act, titled Moving Ahead For Progress In the 21st Century Act, or MAP-21, tells states’ governments their toll facilities must implement “technologies or business practices that provide for the interoperability of electronic toll collection programs.”

As with many mandates from Capitol Hill, the highway funding reauthorization did not, specifically, allocate any funds to helps states begin or complete the conversion process.

Electronic Tolls On Incompatible Networks

In 1993, AT&T ran a series of commercials that challenged drivers to imagine a day when they would never have to stop to pay a toll. Actor Tom Selleck narrated a national television spot that made a series of predictions that, at the time, seemed a distant dream.

E-ZPass Logo

E-ZPass, the predominant electronic tolling network, is twenty years old. However, it is not yet compatible with all states’ toll systems.

Very quickly, though, many states introduced electronic tolling. E-ZPass, the largest electronic toll network, celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 2016.

Using one of these transponders meant you could travel, albeit slowly, through a toll barrier without necessarily having to stop. Traffic conditions at the toll barriers often presented a far different reality, however. Many states adopted similar technology, opting into networks that permitted drivers from one state to use their transponder in another state. But that compatibility was limited.

In Florida, where the transponder system is not yet connected with E-ZPass, drivers from any of 14 states that use E-ZPass are left paying cash or having to buy a SunPass, Florida’s electronic transponder. The service plazas along Florida’s Turnpike offer them for sale. They can also be ordered online, including on TurnpikeInfo.com. Texas, which uses TxTag, is not compatible with either Florida’s system or E-ZPass.

Conversion To Cashless Tolling

In recent years, new, all-electronic toll gantries have begun to replace the manned toll booths across many major toll roads. These gantries are equipped with a series of strobes and lasers, to separate and identify vehicles, according to a well-crafted description on the Florida’s Turnpike website. Cameras take a picture of all passing vehicles’ license plates, and sensors in the ground read the number of axles. Receivers then detect a passing transponder, and travelers can remain at highway speeds. There are no booths.

If a vehicle does not have a compatible electronic transponder, a bill is sent to the registered owner of the vehicle at the end of the month. It includes all tolls that are incurred on a specific toll road, and an administrative fee, usually two or three dollars.

All-electronic tolling means there is not even a need for a transponder device, if one does not wish to enjoy the discount most states offer for using electronic toll transponders. The cashless system is called open-road tolling, and even drivers without a transponder are no longer required to stop, but few toll roads are fully converted.

Some states are ahead of others in the conversion to all-electronic tolling, called AET, for short. Drivers on Illinois’ Tri-State Tollway are familiar with AET gantries; many entrance and exit ramps, and some toll barriers are now AET-only, meaning drivers must have an electronic transponder, pay online with a credit card or get a bill. The same can be said for the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway, which, while under reconstruction west of Chicago, has also been largely converted to AET. However, many toll barriers on Illinois’ toll roads still have separate cash lanes, a sort of hybrid system.

Massachusetts, on the other hand, is completely converting to AET. The state is sweeping away all manned toll booths along the 138-mile long Massachusetts Turnpike, and officials will turn on all-electronic tolling on October 28, barring unforeseen technological or, more likely, political impediments. The state’s department of transportation, known colloquially as MassDOT, has been holding public hearings on the new tolling system and the toll costs, some of which are actually going down. When we called to speak to Jacquelyn Goddard, in the MassDOT media office, she was on her way to one such meeting. We did not hear back from her in time for this installment in our series.

In Florida, where conversion has been underway for many years, the process will continue for many more, according to Chad Huff, public information officer for Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise. FTE operates Florida’s Turnpike, the Veteran’s Expressway in Tampa, along with the Homestead Extension of Florida’s Turnpike, which runs through Miami-Dade County. “[FTE] anticipates full conversion to all-electronic toll collection by 2022,” Huff told TurnpikeInfo.com.

Toll gantry in Fort Lauderdale on Florida's Turnpike

Florida has been converting toll plazas to gantry systems for years, but cash booths remain at many barriers, including this one just west of Fort Lauderdale.

Nonetheless, significant portions of Florida’s Turnpike are already all-electronic. South of Fort Lauderdale and into Miami, drivers must use an electronic toll transponder or they will get a bill at the end of the month. In Florida, that transponder is called Sunpass, but it is not compatible with E-ZPass states, yet.

Texas, likewise, has open-road tolling on many major roads, including the Texas State Highway 130, TX130, a commuter road that shuttles drivers from Austin to points north, including Round Rock and Pflugerville, where the growth of the tech industry has mandated the rapid expansion of the state’s highway system. However, Texas, like Florida, has a closed toll collection system that is not yet compatible with other states.

AET gantry near Austin, Texas, November 2014

Many states, like Texas, have introduced all-electronic tolling on their newer toll roads, like the SR-130, shown here in November 2014.

On roads in Florida, Texas and other states where AET is already in place, or soon will be, anyone without a compatible toll transponder will simply get a bill at the end of the month. That bill will include an administrative fee, usually a few dollars, which will be added to the single bill that includes all tolls incurred during the month, for that specific toll road.

Technology Issues Easier To Overcome Than Bureaucratic Challenges

While many states are still working to make their transponder systems compatible, it is the bureaucratic challenges that have manifest as most difficult to resolve. Huff pointed out that technological issues can be easily overcome, and pointed to the integration of Florida’s local and state transponder systems. “SunPass and the other Florida brands use the same technology and worked out business rules as electronic tolling was being introduced,” Huff wrote.

Adair agreed the technological challenges are easily surmounted. “Technological difficulties are one of a myriad of challenges that have impeded national interoperability,” Adair said. “[They] are one of the lesser challenges.”

Huff said Florida is already testing new equipment that will read the most common types of transponders, regardless of manufacturer and state of issue. FTE has installed and tested tri-protocol readers with the goal of being able to read the three selected protocols under IBTTA conformance and performance testing,” he said.

The IBTTA is the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, which is a toll agency cooperative founded in 1932. It has issued a number of policy and technology standards and position papers regarding what it calls, on its website, “critical infrastructure challenges of the 21st Century.”

Adair said one of the main problems confronting many states’ tolling agencies is differing  processes. Huff agreed. “Developing compatible business rules across agencies takes significant amounts of time,” Huff said. “Today, we are working with agencies who are well established. Compromise is the name of the game.”

Another issue is the sharing of driver and vehicle information. When it comes to sharing data and collecting tolls, the bureaucratic variations from one state to another tend to get in the way, Adair said. “Agencies may seem reluctant to relinquish the customer account since they are directly responsible from the view of the Federal government, State government and customer” Adair observed.

Finally, there are state laws that have yet to come into line with the federal mandate, Adair said. “Many states are also impeded by legislation or lack of legislation that regulates or permits their interactions with other state agencies and private corporations,” she said.

Coming next: Sharing driver information and vehicle registration data with other states to collect tolls. Also, when to know you are on a toll road.

 

Editor’s Note: This article has been modified from its original presentation. We originally reported the Massachusetts Turnpike as being 157 miles long. It is 138 miles long.

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About Danny Pryor

Danny Pryor is a media, content and web developer with a long history in broadcast and print journalism. He is also the executive director of Turnpike Information Company. Danny has earned two awards from the Associated Press for his work in media, including Best Individual Achievement for Large Market Radio in Miami. He resides in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.