Share By Sachin Shenolikar
For hundreds of years, people all around the world have been paying tolls to use roadways and bridges. The fees have generated revenue for private companies and state and local governments.
In the late 1980s, technology was developed that allowed drivers to pay tolls electronically rather than with cash. It was the start of a major transformation of highway travel. Two decades later, technologies such as E-ZPass (U.S. Northeast), SunPass (Florida), FasTrack (West Coast) have expanded on that breakthrough by creating open road tolling, allowing for payments via a transponder fastened to a vehicle’s windshield. “It allows folks to be able to drive at highway speeds and pay their tolls through a configuration of equipment that is constructed over the roadways,” says Parker Williams, senior vice president for business development in the government and transportation sector at Xerox.
The innovation has had several benefits. 1) It’s convenient for travelers, 2) It has reduced emissions because vehicles aren’t idling while in long lines, 3) There are fewer accidents because drivers don’t have to slow down, go through a toll booth, and then merge back into traffic, and 4) It’s cheaper for states because the collection system is automated.
The issue that remains, however, is that each regional open-road tolling system is not connected to the others.
If you have an E-ZPass transponder that was issued in New York, it will not allow you to pay a toll through FasTrack in California or SunPass in Florida. Getting the systems to be interoperable across regions is the next step in the evolution of tolling.
In 2012, the federal government passed legislation called MAP-21 that requires the tolling industry to figure out a way to allow toll customers to use one transponder to pay anywhere in the country. The deadline to develop toll interoperability standards: 2016.
Meeting that deadline won’t be easy. In order for interoperability across regions, national protocol standards will have to be developed to accommodate the different manufacturers that have built the equipment and the states that have adopted it. Technology will need to be tweaked to make the transponders and lane equipment compatible across regions and tolling agencies. And there’s the issue of how the credit card fees and billions of dollars in revenue will be shared by states.
There’s no question that the tolling industry has an immense challenge on its hands. “If industry officials are not able to show Congress by 2016 that they’re making progress, then they stand the risk of the feds stepping in and forcing them into these standards,” says Williams.
Some experts, including Williams, believe a solution to the interoperability dilemma could be mobile devices. “There won’t be transponders or equipment in the lane, but all the payment mechanisms [would] work through some app that you have on your smartphone,” he says. “That may be the next evolution, or something [built] in the automobile itself that will allow you to pay.”
Williams compares the transaction to how people pay for coffee using their phone.
“I have the mobile app for Starbucks, and I can use that for any Starbucks in the country. It charges whatever I buy against my account,” he says. “The same kind of [process] is going to happen with the toll industry.”
The next two years will be crucial as officials race to meet the government deadline. Whether it’s via mobile or other technology figuring out a way to make tolling interoperable will have a rolling impact on highway travel. The money generated could be used to improve the existing highway infrastructure, making travel even safer and more efficient. “It’s really exciting,” says Williams. “As we move to national tolling, it’s going to allow states a way to use that as a funding mechanism to build new roadways and new bridges.”