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Tolling Points

Tech Summit 2022 Spotlight: Lessons on Innovation from Florida Leaders

Jacob Barron, IBTTA

It wasn’t just the weather that made Florida an ideal backdrop for this year’s 2022 IBTTA Technology Summit. A number of growing trends across Florida has forced it to innovate quickly to meet the transit and mobility needs of both its new residents and perennial visitors based on new realities:

•    According to U.S. News and World Report, 11 of the 25 fastest-growing cities in the U.S., are in Florida
•    Even as U.S. population growth dipped to its lowest rate on record, Florida experienced the nation’s second-highest population growth in 2021, and the largest net migration gains
•    At the end of the third quarter of 2021, the state accounted for 5 percent of the total U.S. economic activity last year. 

The Technology Summit closed, appropriately, with a session dedicated to sharing the insights of three Florida transit innovators—Nathaniel Ford, CEO of the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA), Laura Kelley, Executive Director of the Central Florida Expressway Authority (CFX) and Nicola Liquori, Executive Director and CEO of Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise (FTE).

In a panel moderated by Chris Tomlinson, Executive Director, Georgia State Road and Tollway Authority and IBTTA Past President, each innovator took to the dais to talk about one specific innovation they oversaw at their respective agency, and the conditions they had to create as leaders in order to turn those innovations into realities.

JTA’s U2C Project

On the most technologically-advanced end of the spectrum, Ford’s presentation focused on his agency’s Ultimate Urban Circulator (U2C) initiative, which aims to convert a people-moving system first proposed and partially-built in the 1980s into a modern and almost entirely-autonomous mobility solution for residents. Ford noted that after the U2C project was approved to move forward, he had to find the right people. “As the JTA CEO, while I had a number of engineers who worked on road building projects and transit projects, I had no one who worked in the automation space,” he said. “The language that was being used as it relates to machine learning, artificial intelligence, robotics…that was not part of the existing nomenclature for our staff.”

JTA created a new Automation & Innovation Division to bridge that gap, which ultimately resulted in agency-wide adjustments, according to Ford. “It forced us to take a good hard look at our salaries, our wages and the way we did business,” he said, noting that the agency eventually found two former Amazon executives with robotics experience to help them power the program along.

Ford went into detail about how he navigated various slings and arrows to keep the project moving, but he also talked about how, when dealing with a project as forward looking as the U2C initiative, he even had to change how he measured progress.

“One of the biggest challenges has been that a lot of our measurements and yardsticks only measure those yards from 30-40 years ago,” said Ford. “But we’re measuring something that's never even been contemplated, so some of our specifications and procurement processes just don't fit.”
“Transportation project measurements that are old get in the way of being able to innovate and do things in a more creative space,” he added.

CFX’s Visitor Toll Pass

“The reason for our existence—the way we plan, the way we design, the way we build our system—all revolve around the customer,” said Kelley, introducing the innovative subject of her portion of the presentation, a fine example of a “why-didn’t-I-think-of-that?” solution to a common problem for visitors to Central Florida.

Orlando is the world’s largest rental car market. This presents several challenges to tolling organizations in the area, because rental car drivers will use area roadways and then wind up paying confusing, exorbitant fees on the back end charged by the rental car companies (and the toll roads wind up getting an unfair share of the blame).

“We are a part of the Orlando experience,” Kelley said. “We take the experience very seriously, and we had to do better. Our visitors demanded it and so did our mayors.”

The solution was CFX’s Visitor Toll Pass, a free, temporary toll pass for rental car customers traveling through Orlando International Airport that guarantees rental-car drivers always pay the lowest toll rate during their stay anywhere in Florida, not just in the Orlando area. 

Kelley explained that when the toll pass was first proposed, the question “why do we need another transponder?” did occur to her and her team, but they found a sharing-economy-friendly solution. “The transponder was transformed into a hang tag that could be borrowed for free at the airport,” she said. “Visitor Pass works throughout Florida and provides seamless use, and it’s highly automated.” 

Again, the creation of CFX’s Visitor Toll Pass was driven by road users’ frustration with rental car fees for toll roads. People talked, and Kelley’s team listened. “Innovation is absolutely required to fill the gaps in our customer experience in an ever-changing world,” she said. “Creating an environment that fosters invention has never been more important than today, and some of our industry’s most important advances have come from truly listening to all the people we reach.”

Kelley almost giddily acknowledged how proud she was of her team for developing this solution. “A lot of the invention and all the things going on that are new for our customers are not my ideas,” she said. “The staff has embraced the idea of service—when they see an opportunity to provide something better, they develop it.” Kelley’s job as the agency’s leader, she said, was to create “that environment that gives them permission.”

FTE’s SunTrax Facility

Fittingly, the Technology Summit began and ended with SunTrax, FTE’s tolling technology testing facility. SunTrax welcomed Summit attendees for a tour on the conference’s first day, and Liquori discussed the facility’s creation in the last segment of the last session. SunTrax came to be the same way “innovation typically starts,” Liquori said, “with one idea that blossoms and turns into something much more robust.”

Years ago, FTE tested its toll technology like many others in the industry at the time—by going to their vendor’s testing sites and seeing how things worked there. Eventually they decided they needed their own test facility, and so they rented one for a time. 

“We had a track we used to rent and then our lease was up, and we no longer had a way to test our equipment,” Liquori said. “So then-director of toll operations Rick Nelson [who was in the room for Liquori’s presentation] said ‘we need to build our own track,’” she said, adding that, from a financial perspective, this idea wasn’t met with all smiles. “I think the CFO said ‘okay, what’s the business case for that? How do we make that work?’”

But despite the questions, the seed for SunTrax was sown, and the idea of FTE having its own test facility took root years ago, before it became what it is today (and what it’ll be tomorrow, as SunTrax continues to expand and open new portions of the facility). 

If there’s one lesson to take away from Liquori’s experience and SunTrax’s story, it’s that if you have the idea, start working on making it a reality today. While the idea for SunTrax first surfaced years ago, and while it might’ve made little financial sense then, it couldn’t be coming online at a better time for FTE or the tolling industry at large. “Our business is not just about toll technology; our business is about intelligent transportation systems and smart highways. And along comes automated, connected, electric vehicles and all of the sudden the landscape of transportation has evolved,” Liquori said. “And here we have this facility ready to launch.”

“Thank goodness that idea was started so many years ago,” she added, “all to solve an agency problem that blossomed into something more because of the hard work of the turnpike staff.”

A full copy of this Tech Summit session’s presentation materials can be found here. A full video recording of the session will soon be available to IBTTA members.

Newsletter publish date: 
Wednesday, April 6, 2022 - 11:15


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