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Tolling Points

Telling Our Story: Interoperability and Beyond

By: 
Pat Jones, IBTTA

It’s fascinating to look at your own industry through the eyes of an outsider. You know the experience. You’re attending a backyard barbecue and an unfamiliar neighbor approaches you and says, “Hi, I’m Sarah. What’s your name and what do YOU do?”

With a mixture of pride, trepidation and courage, you begin to unpack the beauty, mystery and complexity of the worldwide tolling industry: the history, technology, operations and customer service. You use words like customer, safe, efficient, sustainable, user pay principle, all-electronic, interoperable and more. You watch the weather patterns of recognition move across your neighbor’s face: from sunny and clear, to cloudy, stormy, and mostly cloudy. Naturally, there are questions, which you answer. Some questions are easy and your answers roll off the tongue with little effort. Other questions are more complicated and you must explain three related concepts before you can provide a satisfactory answer. And it goes on from there.

Telling the story of tolling in the United States is exactly the task that Cheddar News took upon itself in a 10-minute video posted to their YouTube channel in July, which focuses on nationwide electronic tolling interoperability. Overall, Cheddar did a decent job and should be commended on their research, storytelling and production value.

Cheddar also does a good job describing two story elements which don’t receive enough attention in today’s headline-grabbing public policy discussion:

  • the important historical role of tolling in the growth and development of the U.S.; and
  • the valuable role of tolling as an alternative to other means of paying for road infrastructure such as the fuel tax

The Historical Role of Tolling in the Growth of the United States

Cheddar’s history of tolling takes us all the way back to the founding of the republic. According to the video, “Tolls were critical for establishing the early United States.” And as we all know, tolling is an equally vital tool for continuing to build a strong and interconnected transportation network today.

The video goes on to point out a provision of 1916 law that prohibited the use of federal funds for building toll roads. So states began to build toll roads on their own to fill the federal funding gap. The financial success of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which opened in 1940, prompted other states to follow suit. So by 1955, there were 1,200 miles of toll roads in the U.S. with another 1,400 miles under construction and 3,300 miles in the planning stages. Today there are more than 6,300 miles of toll roads bridges and tunnels in 34 states. And they are some of the most heavily traveled highways in the country.

The crucial point that is often ignored is that toll roads have played a vital role in the growth and development of the United States. Thank you, Cheddar, for reinforcing this point.

The Valuable Role of Tolling as an Alternative to the Fuel Tax

The other major point that Cheddar News reinforces is the valuable role of toll finance as an alternative to the fuel tax. While the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act instituted a fuel tax to pay for the construction of the Interstate Highway System, by the 1980s and 1990s Americans started using more fuel-efficient cars which reduced federal fuel tax revenue. Add to that the reluctance of politicians to increase the fuel tax, and fuel tax revenues declined even more. This situation – a decline in federal funding for road infrastructure – sparked a new toll road renaissance.

Our Interoperability Success Story

The part of the story that’s problematic is when it refers to nationwide interoperability as a “nightmare.” The story says that Congress passed a law in 2012 requiring interoperability between all the nation’s toll systems. “The law was supposed to take effect in 2016,” says the story, yet here you are in 2021 using multiple transponders for your cross-country trip.

The tone of the story suggests that the tolling industry has resisted doing what any reasonable person would expect us to do: create interoperability among the various toll facilities. In fact, since the beginning of electronic tolling in the late 1980s – long before Congress took any interest in interoperability – individual agencies banded together to work on interoperability. For example, the leaders of seven toll agencies in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania recognized that a patchwork of different tolling systems would not be in the best interest of toll customers or the agencies serving them. So they created E-ZPass which today is the largest system of tolling interoperability in the world.

The video also suggests that a cross-country trip requires 3-4 transponders. This statement ignores the fact that a very low percentage of auto travelers make such a trip.  The largest percentage of cross-country vehicular trips are heavy trucks operated by commercial vehicle fleets, many of which take advantage of third-party services like Bestpass that provide a single account option to cross regions that are not currently interoperable.

As for success stories, the biggest interoperability gap in the U.S. has been filled. Earlier this year the E-ZPass Group, Florida DOT and Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise announced that E-ZPass and SunPass are interoperable. This means that all the snow birds who wish to travel from the Northeast U.S. to Florida – and back – can now do so using only their home transponder.

The Future

The story of tolling interoperability in the U.S. is definitely not a nightmare; it’s more like a dream coming true.  The lessons we’ve learned from developing interoperable toll systems on a regional basis over the last 30 years will serve us well in the future. As we move to an electric vehicle fleet, gas tax revenues will continue to decline. And states and the federal government will need to find new revenues to support road infrastructure. Where will those revenues come from? From tolls and road use charges (RUC). Now is the time for us to apply all the lessons learned from tolling – in technology, operations, customer service, financial clearance – to the urgent task of making road use charging as seamless and efficient as possible.

The U.S. tolling industry is committed to providing transportation options to the driving public that are safe and sustainable, supported by the latest technology, and focused on easing congestion and giving consumers real choices that satisfy their mobility needs.

Newsletter publish date: 
Tuesday, August 3, 2021 - 08:30

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