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Avenue to Automation

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august 2012

Technological advances in tolling leave the motor vehicle industry at a crossroads.

Anyone who travels on a regular basis can appreciate the frustration of stopping to pay at the toll plaza—not only does it unnecessarily interrupt traffic flow, it also adds time to a trip and boosts emission levels. Fortunately, with the evolution of All Electronic Tolls (AETs), the current process of handing cash to a teller or manually feeding change into a machine could soon become as much of a memory as eight-track tapes.

Even though 70 percent of tolls nationwide are currently collected electronically, the latest trend is to fully automate toll collection and eliminate cash from the equation through AETs. To coincide with the movement towards AETs, states across the country are entering into feasibility studies to consider Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs) as well. This means that instead of paying a toll operator, either drivers charge an existing E-ZPass account—by travelling through the E-ZPass lane—or the ALPR device takes a picture of a driver’s license plate and automatically sends a bill to the residence of his or her vehicle registration.

“Drivers no longer want to stop at a tollbooth. They want to continue their trips without interruption,” says Mike Robertson, North Carolina commissioner of motor vehicles. “That’s why it has become more and more necessary to use transponders or cameras to identify the vehicles that are using the roads. The biggest benefit is that traffic flow is not stopped or slowed down. Drivers can continue on their way and traffic speed and flow is easier to manage and plan for.”

DMV Impact

Understandably, as more states implement automated tolling systems, there will be an impact on the way DMV administrators do business. “There are big challenges associated with implementing AET, including the placement and retraining of affected employees, the conversion of existing cash toll plazas and potential bonding and credit issues due to collection of revenue issues from non E-ZPass account holders,” says Delaware DOT representative Jennifer Cohan.

For several years, Delaware has been dealing with how to handle the transition on its Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle bond funded US301 project, which turns the highway into a 17.4-mile, four-lane toll road. Delaware Tolling Operations became part of the DMV in 2010, Cohan explains, after the state decided its tolling operations should fall under the DMV umbrella. “This [streamlined] administration, and it removed the political barriers that hindered reciprocity with surrounding states,” she says. “One of the consequences of moving toward AETs is that the traditional toll collector positions will no longer be necessary, so this move gave existing toll employees opportunities to cross-train into the DMV.”

As a result, Cohan adds, DMV services will be able to expand to more venues—like toll plazas—and there will be promotional possibilities for toll employees. “This move has been noted as a win-win by our state governor and the state Legislature,” she says.

Of course, installing AET and ALPR technology is only part of the equation. Another impact is the movement toward national interoperability of electronic toll collection systems, stressed within the 2011 International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association report presented to the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Having a national network of agencies would be huge for the industry in the collection of tolls [and] violations that may not have been collectable before,” Cohan says. “Currently, the E-ZPass Group and Florida’s SunPass are working on an interoperability agreement that would allow both transponders/technologies to be used on the entire East Coast.”

Partnership Approach

Because most tolling authorities do not operate within DMVs, Robertson suggests both parties find ways to work with one another. “Most of the authorities are private or subsidiaries of private companies,” he says. “They are charged with identifying more and more tags, and they must do this through the DMVs. This costs dollars [and] manpower and presents legal challenges. It takes money and time to identify tag images.”

Planning for the use of AETs and ALPRs for tolling requires a collaborative effort. Robertson says topics of discussion between tolling agencies and DMVs should include: how the cameras and readers will work; how the purely private tolling agencies will work with the DMVs, which need to comply with privacy laws; and what contracts might be needed with the company to enable the release of Drivers Privacy Protection Act-protected information. “Get the process going early on, before plans are made to install the cameras and readers,” he says. “The [agencies and DMVs] need to work together to determine how they will provide the private information needed by the tolling agencies.”

According to Cohan, the best thing DMVs can do today is begin to build relationships with their state tolling agencies to determine what the goals of the tolling agencies really are. “State DMVs should also begin to research their legal ability to enter into reciprocity agreements with other states to share DMV data for toll and violations collection,” she says. “For those states without toll roads, they should also begin to determine the feasibility of entering into reciprocity agreements for sharing their data and determine what they would need in return such as revenue sharing.” The big change is that the required level of data sharing will not only be for toll violators, but also for vehicle ownership data if an agency is moving toward AET either via transponder technology or license plate reading technology. “Some state DMVs see this as a potential burden on their already limited resource pool, but in reality, toll agencies are willing to share in revenues—especially revenues that they had historically been unable to collect,” Cohan says.

Seizing opportunities

While many DMVs are quick to point out the many challenges associated with embracing fully automated tolling solutions, the multipronged big picture benefits associated with embracing new tolling technology are often worth the effort, Cohan explains.

“First, you reduce the required manpower to operate the traditional toll plazas and booths, which is a significant cost savings. Second, you increase traffic flow and reduce congestion, which in turn reduces harmful emissions into the environment,” she says. “Third, by building and developing relationships with other states, you can actually increase your overall toll revenues, and for states with no toll roads, there is also revenue to be generated through partnerships with states that need their DMV information.”

Although Congress has yet to introduce new legislation to revamp tolling, the writing is on the wall for tolling agencies as well as DMVs. And, while both parties could wait out the legal process, Congress’ current inaction represents an opportunity for collaboration for all involved to develop a desired solution rather than struggle to implement potentially unappealing mandates.