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Tolling Points

Nationwide Virtual Press Briefing Emphasizes Tolling's Rapid Response to COVID-19

By: 
Bill Cramer

The grit, determination, and capacity for innovation in the global tolling industry took center stage last Thursday, as IBTTA hosted a well-attended news briefing for more than 50 international, national, state, and local reporters interested in the industry’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Taking advantage of online streaming technology that has become the new business as usual during the months of stay-at-home orders, the association assembled a nation-wide media audience to hear from six of the industry’s leading voices:

  • Samuel Johnson, Interim CEO, Transportation Corridor Agencies in Irvine, CA;
  • Mark Compton, CEO, Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission in Middletown, PA;
  • Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, Commissioner, NJ Department of Transportation in Trenton, NJ;
  • Chris Tomlinson, Executive Director of Georgia’s State Road and Tollway Authority and the Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority in Atlanta, GA;
  • Tim Stewart, Executive Director, E-470 Public Highway Authority, Aurora, CO; and
  • Pat Jones, Executive Director and CEO, IBTTA, Washington, D.C.

“If this were any other year, we would be talking about Memorial Day, one of the busiest travel weekends of the year,” Jones said. “Instead, we are talking about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on our nation’s economy and our daily lives. Since the middle of March, our members’ toll facilities have seen traffic and revenue declines of 50 to 90%.”

While Congress works on another economic aid package, “it’s important to send a strong signal to consumers and investors that our vital roads, bridges and tunnels will be available and well-staffed when the pandemic ends and the recovery begins,” he added. But “if there is one common theme in every major study of surface transportation infrastructure financing in the last 20 years, it is this: users must pay for road infrastructure.”

And in the response to the pandemic, “user-financed transportation is a proven and reliable means to help America recover, rebuild, and grow our way out of this crisis.”

Every Facility is Unique

The five agency panelists presented a shared set of basic objectives: to keep employees and customers safe, manage the financial and logistical challenges brought on by the global pandemic, and be ready to serve as the economy reopens. From Johnson reporting a 70 to 80% drop in transactions and revenues on The Toll Roads in California, to Compton and Tomlinson tracing 50% reductions in Pennsylvania and Georgia, media participants got a quick, compelling snapshot of the nation-wide impact of a sudden emergency that no one could have anticipated or prepared for.

The executives talked about capital plans deferred and financing arrangements coming up for revision, all with a view to maintaining the stability of established mobility agencies with a vital community mission to fulfill. They traced the diligent steps they were taking to respond to the immediate health threat while managing the administrative aspects of keeping stakeholders informed and their agencies  operating smoothly.

“This has been an extraordinary period in our lifetimes,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said. “Our professional and personal lives have been impacted in ways we never imagined. But we have always counted on our transportation system to be there for us. Transportation professionals have stepped up to this challenge to keep our systems running,” and “my gratitude to all of the men and women who have worked tirelessly to keep our first responders, front-line workers and essential personnel moving.”

“Our teams are working diligently to prepare for and adapt to the changes wrought by this pandemic,” Stewart agreed. “As we look ahead and prepare for our new future, E-470 remains Colorado proud and grateful for the medical professionals and essential workers that are keeping us safe and protected.”

Keeping America Moving

News coverage of the event focused largely on the record-low traffic agencies were anticipating for the Memorial Day weekend, the industry’s request to the U.S. Congress for direct funding and TIFIA rate relief, and the different future outcomes that could shape or reshape America’s mobility patterns.

“There’s a possibility that we could see significantly more traffic on highways and especially toll facilities,” Jones told Politico, as workplaces open up but fewer regular riders feel confident taking public transit. With their “built in” revenue stream, he added, tolled facilities are in a good position to support transportation infrastructure over the next several months. “Right now everybody’s grabbing for emergency funding,” he said, “but at some point the spigot of emergency funding is going to stop.”

American Shipper pointed to freight traffic as one of the factors helping toll roads in New Jersey and Pennsylvania sustain their revenue streams, just as the agencies had highlighted their own role in supporting truckers. “If [COVID-19] has had unintended consequences, it’s been forging an even stronger relationship with our commercial traffic through the New Jersey Motor Truck Association,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said, with toll roads and the NJMTA working together to distribute hand sanitizer and ensure that restrooms and food service options remain open and available to drivers.

Publications like Informed Infrastructure and Ink World Magazine focused on the 50 to 90% revenue loss the industry sustained in the early phase of the pandemic. “Even though we are already seeing recovery with traffic and revenue at 50 to 60% of the previous year, we need to be cautious,” Johnson said. “We hope the federal government can support the tolling industry, not as a means of rescuing agencies, but as part of the economic boost that investments in transportation infrastructure provide.”

You can watch the video recording of the press briefing here.

Newsletter publish date: 
Tuesday, May 26, 2020 - 10:45

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