(Editor’s note: As Virginia contemplates more toll roads, and the interstate highway system needs substantial rebuilding, this article illustrates how today’s technology can help pay for our roads more efficiently than today.)
Efforts are under way both nationally and regionally to bring about interoperability among all-electronic tolling systems. This involves not only upgrading toll roads’ systems to read transponders from elsewhere but also to interconnect back-office operations so that a customer needs only one toll account and gets only one bill, regardless of where he or she drives. Texas and Oklahoma are close to making their systems interoperable, and the Kansas Turnpike in March announced plans to be interoperable with them by the end of this year. Florida and North Carolina have done likewise, with Georgia expected to join them soon, and all three plan to become interoperable with the 15-state E-ZPass group in the Northeast and Midwest. At the national level, the Alliance for Toll Interoperability is developing the first toll transactions matching hub as a pilot project. And the International Bridge, Tunnel & Turnpike Association has an Interoperability Steering Committee working to define an open protocol for a national transponder (toll tag).
A different approach is being pursued by a Florida-based startup company called GeoToll. Their approach is to use smartphones as a way to give individual customers an interoperable solution, without the need for toll operators to reconfigure or replace much of the tolling equipment in place at hundreds of different toll roads and bridges across the country. GeoToll would provide a sticker tag (similar to what many electronic toll systems already use) to be affixed to the customer’s smartphone, plus a tolling app the customer would download. When the car approaches a tolling point, the phone’s GPS knows its location, which tells GeoToll’s software which toll system the vehicle is approaching, and configures its communications with the tolling system accordingly. As the company puts it, “We bring the protocol to the lane; no need to change road-side equipment.”
I spent about an hour at GeoToll earlier this year, getting an overview of the system and watching a brief demonstration of how it works. I missed their two-hour webinar last fall, but you can read the account of it provided by Tollroadsnews.com (Sept. 18, 2013). CEO Tim McGuckin told participants that GeoToll will guarantee payment (to the toll road operator) of all tolls incurred by its account-holders, as well as taking responsibility for collecting or absorbing the costs of bad accounts. He expects GeoToll’s presence in the marketplace will increase the fraction of toll road customers paying via transponder, as opposed to the more expensive license-plate imaging. (www.tollroadsnews.com/node/6742)
GeoToll has done field tests with two toll operators thus far, Washington State DOT and another which for now remains anonymous. McGuckin told Tollroadsnews.com in a February interview that the WSDOT tests went very well, with “excellent” results, reading at the same level of accuracy as standard transponders issued by WSDOT. I saw some of those test results in my visit with the company in March. Further deployment tests are planned for this year with three other toll agencies in different parts of the country.
Skeptic that I am, I asked an independent electronic tolling expert for his thoughts, and he raised a number of cautions. I reviewed these with McGuckin and thought he provided reasonable answers—though obviously this will be determined in the marketplace. I have space for just two of these issues. First was the concern that it will take a lot of time and money to fine-tune the system for
each separate toll operator. McGuckin points to a national toll industry certification program called OmniAir Certification Services as the starting point. Once GeoToll has that, each agency will indeed require acceptance testing, but there are only a handful of different tolling protocols around the country, with E-ZPass by far the largest. Illinois Tollway has volunteered to be the pilot site for the E-ZPass Group, smoothing its entry to other members. WSDOT is playing the same role for the 6C group of toll operators.
Another question was what happens if there is more than one smartphone in the vehicle as it approaches a tolling point. McGuckin notes that there is only a potential concern if more than one is equipped for GeoToll, but even then the tolling system would read them both but give them identical time stamps, which GeoToll would process as a single transaction.
My assessment at this point is that GeoToll looks promising as a meaningful step towards national electronic tolling interoperability. McGuckin suggests that with 3,300 toll lanes in the United States today, it would be very costly to replace the equipment in all of them with new multi-protocol readers. The expense of those readers would be less if all the operators agreed to only two or three protocols, but still a big expense for most. Some of the largest operators may opt for multi-protocol readers, but many others might decide to promote customer use of GeoToll as an alternative—assuming it works as well as the company expects.
(This article first ran in Surface Transportation Innovations)