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Tolling Points

The Task at Hand: Adjusting the Sails and Prioritizing Fundamentals

By: 
Patrick Jones, Executive Director and CEO, IBTTA

Unprecedented. Uncertain. Challenging. Pivot. These are a few of the many words that have flooded our everyday speech during the pandemic. When I feel a flood coming on, it’s time for a sailing metaphor. One of the best people I know to turn to for that is Rob Horr, former Executive Director of the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority, the U.S.-Canada border crossing that connects the towns of Alexandria Bay, New York and Ivy Lea, Ontario. Rob was the 2013 President of IBTTA and is now a Vice President with Atkins N.A.

If you know Rob Horr, you know that he used to own a 33-foot sailboat and that he loves to sail with friends and family. I had the pleasure of sailing with Rob and his three sons on a bright sunny day in June some years ago. As Rob tells it, sailing can teach us a lot about life, about confronting challenges, and about change. One of his favorite expressions about sailing goes like this: “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”

All of us want very much NOT to be living in a pandemic right now. The deaths and the isolation from friends, family and colleagues are two of the most obvious examples of the pain and disruption brought by the pandemic. And there are many more. But this is the wind we’ve been given in our little boat of IBTTA and together we have adjusted the sails over the last four months.

Like every association grappling with the pandemic, we are adjusting our sails and prioritizing the fundamentals. These fundaments are to preserve and foster community; rethink how to facilitate the exchange of information; serve as a trusted source of information; and advocate for the members.

Preserve and foster community

When the pandemic first hit the U.S. and state governors started locking down, we cancelled our first two in-person meetings of the year and scanned the rest of the 2020 calendar with a mix of hope and anxiety. We know in our bones that the most important thing that builds community in the industry and connects the members is our in-person meetings. Without our in-person meetings, how would we foster community? Time to adjust the sails.

To preserve that sense of community among our members, we lit up the phone lines and amped up the Zoom meetings. In the last two weeks of March (the first two weeks of all staff working from home), we held more than a dozen conference calls and Zoom meetings with members. The goal was simply to stay connected, be in touch, listen, and give our members a space to commiserate and vent.

Rethink how to facilitate the exchange of information

 

With no in-person meetings for the foreseeable future, the logical step was to try to hold virtual meetings. In the IBTTA world, Zoom had very recently burst onto the scene. The user interface was simple and easy to use. And it provided a space where members – isolated in their homes – could be with one another, if not in-person, at least in a way that allowed folks to see and hear facial expressions and emotions.

We began to develop content and pump out Zoom meetings, webinars, Café IBTTA and other digital content with great vigor.

Over the last four months, we have held virtual meetings on Leadership in Times of Uncertainty; Blockchain; Big Data; Evolution of Ransomware Delivery; Financial Effects of the New Travel and Commuting Landscape; Bias – See It. Say It. Stop It.; Messaging and Marketing During the Pandemic; Value of the Concession Model – Best Practices from Around the World; Managing Up, Down & Across Organizations; and much more.

We’ve held two virtual Vendor Forums.

We held our very first entirely virtual workshop when we moved the Maintenance, Engineering & Roadway Operations Workshop from an in-person meeting in Louisville, KY to a digital meeting on the Zoom and Remo platforms.

And we’re headed into our first Virtual Annual Meeting & Exhibition.

We held a Nationwide Press Briefing on the State of U.S. Transportation and Tolling During the COVID-19 Pandemic.

And we have held 12 episodes of Café IBTTA, our weekly 30-minute chat featuring key industry personalities like IBTTA President Samuel Johnson, Immediate Past President Chris Tomlinson, and stalwart industry veterans and innovators J.J. Eden and Ed Regan.

All told, in the last four months, we have held 32 digital events with more than 5,500 attendees. That’s more than 2½ times as many attendees as we had at ALL IBTTA in-person events in 2019. What we lack this year in face-to-face contact we have made up for in content and participation. Yes, we all want to return to in-person meetings. But the bright spot in these unusual times is that more people have participated in IBTTA events in the last four months than in any other year in our history. People know IBTTA as the convener. We are convening. And people are most definitely participating.

You may have noticed that we are NOT charging members anything to attend these virtual events. That is intentional. With so many changes happening all at once, with so much uncertainty about the future, and with the financial stress on toll operators, consultants and vendors from reduced traffic and revenue, our philosophy for the moment is to let IBTTA’s financial goals take a back seat to relationship building and serving the members. We will continue that practice throughout 2020. In 2021, assuming that large gatherings of people will be limited, we will revisit the issue of registration fees for virtual meetings.

Serve as a trusted source of information

One of the most important functions a trade association can serve is to organize useful and relevant information. It’s easy to find lots of information – just open a web browser and conduct a search. But to get information that’s meaningful to you when you need it, it helps to have a curator like IBTTA.

Within days of going into lockdown, we created a web page called “The Tolling Industry Response to Coronavirus or COVID-19.” On this page, you can find links to information about what toll operators around the world are doing in response to COVID-19. Information about social distancing, suspension of cash toll collection, use of personal protective equipment, emerging practices in remote working and more. In the early days of the pandemic, this page was an invaluable resource to countless members.

This is just one example of how we adjusted our sails to turn the IBTTA boat so that we began to organize the information our members most needed and wanted.

Advocate for the members

Speaking of prioritizing fundamentals, there’s nothing more basic in the work of an association than advocating for our members. The last four months have been some of IBTTA’s most active in terms of advocacy. The CARES Act which was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Trump on March 27, 2020 provided more than $2 trillion in economic relief to many parts of the U.S. economy. As part of that package, $25 billion in relief flowed to transit systems. Not long after, discussions turned to the possibility of another relief measure that would include other forms of infrastructure including toll facilities. IBTTA submitted a letter to Congress on April 7 asking them to make direct aid and non-direct financing assistance available to U.S. toll operators. We continue to make the case for direct funding aid for toll operators who are interested in such aid.

In addition to seeking direct aid for toll operators, we have also been deeply engaged in reauthorization of the FAST Act.

The Senate passed its reauthorization package in July 2019 and the House passed its INVEST in America Act in June of this year. Since then, we have been working with both House and Senate staff on ways to fix provisions in the House bill that could make it harder for states and other levels of government to implement tolling and priced managed lanes.

We have also assembled a “Reauthorization Working Group” of toll agency members. The goals of this group are to improve IBTTA’s ability to quickly assess impacts of potential legislative proposals, as well as better target the association’s efforts in the next reauthorization cycle, which will occur later this year and in early 2021.

Summary

The COVID-19 pandemic has precipitated very unfavorable winds for the world economy, transportation, tolling and IBTTA. The wisdom we embrace right now comes from sailor, Past President, and Honorary Member Rob Horr: “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” We at IBTTA are realists. We don’t get to choose the wind, but we do choose how to respond to it. We choose to do all we can to keep our members connected, informed, engaged, and supported.

Wisdom also comes from our current President, Samuel Johnson, Interim CEO of the Transportation Corridor Agencies. His theme for 2020 is “The Road to Continued Excellence.” Little did we know in January how rough the road would be. And while “The Road to Continued Excellence” is the slogan that lives at the top of the marquee, the slogan at the bottom of the marquee is just as important. Anyone who receives an email from Samuel Johnson will see a one-word exhortation just above his signature: Together!

I believe that sentiment – Together! – is a worldview, an aspiration, and a charge. President Samuel Johnson recognizes that all of us confront big challenges. Some may try to face those challenges alone. But we are much more likely to be successful if we face our challenges together. Together! is also a recognition – in these times of heightened consciousness of and protests over racial and social injustice – that our true nature is NOT to be divided by race, ethnicity, party or any other distinction; rather, our true nature is to see ourselves as one. Finally, Together! is Samuel’s way of encouraging and charging you and me to embrace a Together! consciousness in every aspect of our lives.

On behalf of the entire staff, I want to thank you for your continued energy, hard work, and perseverance. You are the lifeblood of IBTTA and our association would be nothing without you! Thanks for staying engaged as we adjust the sails of our little boat. Together!

Newsletter publish date: 
Tuesday, August 4, 2020 - 10:30

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