Single Electronic Transponder System

Tolls in the U.S. were supposed to be operating on one single electronic transponder system by October 1st, 2016. So why has this not happened yet?

In June of 2012, Congress had passed the Moving Ahead for Progress In The 21st Century Act (which is often referred to as “MAP-21”), which is intended to address a number of issues relating to our interstate highway system and the projected numbers of vehicles which are expected to be traveling throughout the course of the 21st century.  One of the issues that the MAP-21 Act included was terms stating that all of the different electronic toll collection systems throughout the U.S. were intended to be interoperable by October 1st, 2016.

The October 1st, 2016 deadline has now passed and we do not have a unified single electronic toll collection system nationwide. So why has this not happened yet?

A Brief History Of Electronic Toll Systems In The U.S.

In the 1980’s, computer technologies were rapidly advancing, and some of the administrators who were working in the highway authorities in various state governments had begun to discuss the possibility of replacing metallic toll tokens with electronic transponders.  In 1989, the Dallas North Tollway in Texas became the first highway in the U.S. in which drivers had the option to use electronic transponders instead of cash to pay the tolls.  Four years later, in 1993, the New York State Thruway Authority followed Texas’ lead, and the option to pay tolls with an electronic transponder became available to drivers who travelled on the southern section of the New York State Thruway.  The system that the North Texas Tollway Authority had introduced in 1989 was called TollTag, and the New York State Thruway Authority’s system is called E-Z Pass.

Throughout the course of the 1990’s, computer technologies continued to advance steadily, and more administrators within various state highway agencies decided to replace metal toll tokens with electronic transponder systems.  Beginning in the early 2000’s, the administrators within many city, county and state transportation agencies throughout the northeastern states had realized that people who travel between states a lot needed to carry 10 or more different toll transponders with them as they traveled between states, so the administrators of the E-Z Pass system expanded the agency.  The administrators of E-Z Pass formed the  E-Z Pass Interagency Group, and the Interagency Group successfully merged many of the different electronic toll systems, so that drivers can now travel through parts of 16 states using only one single transponder to pay the tolls.  And, beginning in 2005, drivers have also had the option to use E-Z pass transponders to pay tolls on some of the bridges in some of the southern regions of Ontario (the costs of the tolls are subtracted from your account every time that you drive through a toll booth- because you pay your toll pass accounts either by direct debit from directly your bank account or with your credit card through the mail or through the toll agencies’ websites, the banks and credit card agencies automatically factor the currency conversion rates which fluctuate daily.)

While the EZPass transponders are accepted at many of the tolls within the 16 states in which EZPass is used, not all of the toll roads in the 16 states in which the E-Z pass system operates are linked to the system.

There are quite a few other states which still operate on other systems.  Alabama uses the Freedom Pass system, Michigan uses the Nexpress Toll pass system, Florida uses a system called Sun Pass, Texas has the TxTag system, the tolls in Puerto Rico can be paid with an AutoExpreso tag, Colorado uses the EXPress Toll network, California uses FasTrak, Washington has the Good To Go toll pass system, Kansas uses the K-Tag system, the highways in Minnesota use a system called MnPass, South Carolina uses a system called Palmetto Pass, Oklahoma uses a system called Pikepass, drivers in Louisiana purchase Geauxpass transponders, the highways in North Carolina use North Carolina’s Quick Pass System (which is now interoperable with some of the other toll collection systems in the eastern states), and Georgia uses the Peach Pass system (which is also interoperable with Florida’s Sun Pass system.)

These different systems all operate on extremely similar technologies, and almost none of these systems that I’ve just mentioned are linked to each other.

The administrators in the highway authorities in some of the states which presently have no tolls are planning on installing tolls one some roads within upcoming years.  If their plans are approved, and they do not coordinate with the transportation agencies in neighboring states, then there will be even more unconnected electronic toll collection systems.

For people who travel only once or twice per year to other regions of the U.S. as tourists or to visit friends or family members, this is a mere minor inconvenience.  All of the auto rental companies will provide a toll transponder for you when you rent a car if you request one, and some of the auto rental agencies provide the transponders at no additional costs.

However, for people who travel frequently- for people who use their own cars or trucks for business trips, for companies who own vehicles which they use for their businesses, for commercial passenger bus operators and for freight companies who send trucks throughout the entire country every single day of the year, this is beyond an inconvenience, the current system is an absolute joke.  You still need to carry at least 13 or 14 different toll transponders with you if you drive frequently throughout all of the continental 48 states.  And you still need to keep track of monthly or bimonthly bills from 13 or 14 different agencies- ALL of whom are operating on very similar computerized systems which are based on 1980’s technologies.

Electronic Toll Collection Systems Benefit Everyone

Back in the 1980’s, when administrators who were working in various city, county and states’ departments of transportation and highway agencies had initially begun to propose implementing  toll transponder systems on the interstate highways, their initial primary intent had been that this would speed up the movement of traffic.

Studies have shown that the implementation of electronic toll collection systems have not only successfully accomplished the original goal of speeding up the pace of traffic at toll plazas,  there have also been other benefits to the transponder systems.  Numerous studies have shown that incidents of accidents at toll plazas are reduced when electronic collection systems are installed, simply because people aren’t repeatedly stopping and moving again, but now people need only slow down to approximately 5 mph when we drive through toll lanes.

It turns out that these devices have also actually contributed to a reduction in air pollution.  Because drivers now need to only slow down, and not stop entirely, drivers who use the electronic passes aren’t idling at all in the toll lanes.  Smog detectors at a number of toll plazas throughout the U.S. have actually detected a reduction in automobile exhaust once electronic toll acceptance lanes opened.

While the electronic toll pass systems were initially only intended for use in paying tolls, state governments’ departments of transportation are the parent agencies which administer many airports as well as the highway authorities, and in many states, we now also have the option to pay for parking in the airport parking lots with our toll transponders, and this speeds up the traffic exiting from airport parking lots.  There have also been experimental programs which fast food chains have allowed people to use their toll passes to pay for meals at the drive-through lanes.

Electronic toll transponder systems may also be beneficial for law enforcement agencies.  Obviously, law enforcement agencies won’t tell us some of the means that they use to track criminals or people who are suspected of having participated in crimes.  Many people suspect that one of the means that law enforcement agencies sometimes utilize to attempt to catch some criminals is by monitoring the use of their toll passes.  While most people who know that they’ve committed crimes and that they are likely being investigated by law enforcement agencies probably will opt to pay tolls with cash, criminals need to only become careless once in order to reveal their whereabouts.

The only criticism of the toll transponder systems has been that they do eliminate some jobs of people who had been manually collecting tolls.  However, almost all toll plazas still have cash lanes.  Furthermore, these systems create many new jobs too because the overhead transponder reading systems all require routine maintenance as well as upgrades.

The different toll transponder systems throughout the U.S. have all been very successful in the years since the different systems have been installed, so why do we still have at least 14 different systems, instead of one single unified system?

Interesting question.  From what I could find while I was researching this article, the administrators of the highway agencies in cities, counties and states throughout the U.S. do all want to link their systems to each other, but they simply did not act in time to meet the October 1st, 2016 deadline.  While our interstate highway system had been designed by the Bureau Of Public Roads, which was the predecessor agency to the Federal Highway Administration, maintenance of the interstate highways is in the hands of each state’s government.  While some states do not have any toll roads at all in them, in many of the states that do have toll roads, there are a quite a few different agencies involved because the highways are maintained by different agencies.

There are thousands of tolls throughout the U.S., and establishing a single unified toll system involves coordinating the efforts of more than one hundred different agencies.  These agencies have to address safety and emergency issues such as repairing bridges and tunnels, repaving potholes, preparedness for winter conditions- coordinating their toll systems which each other is a non-emergency issue, it is a lesser priority, and with the current budgets that many of these agencies have, they were simply not able to coordinate their electronic toll collection systems with each other by October 1st, 2016.

When Will We Finally Have One Single Unified Toll Transponder System Operating Throughout The U.S.?

Beginning January 20th, 2017, Elaine Chao will be our next Secretary of Transportation.  The Department of Transportation is the parent agency of both the  Federal Highway Administration, as well as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Because the numerous city, county, state and joint agencies which administer the thousands of tolls throughout the U.S. were not able to successfully coordinate with each other by the Oct. 1st, 2016 deadline which had been stated under the terms of MAP-21 Act, perhaps it is time for the Federal government’s DOT, and in particular, the FHA to step in and pick up where numerous city, county, state and joint agencies throughout the country have not yet succeeded, and perhaps it is not time for the FHA and the NHTSA to oversee the process of linking our country’s numerous electronic toll collection systems together.

Because it has been shown that the use of electronic transponder tags does successfully reduce the numbers of accidents at toll plazas, this is also an issue relating to road safety, so the process of linking the different systems together would also fit into the agenda of the NHTSA.

And we need not stop there.  As I mentioned earlier, E-Z pass has been accepted at some of the tolls in southern Ontario since 2005.  Highway safety standards in both the U.S. and Canada are now more advanced than ever, roads are easier to travel on, the technologies that are installed in automobiles, buses and trucks are becoming increasingly advanced every year, and every year, we have more vehicles and more drivers on every road throughout the U.S. and Canada.  There are more tourists, business travelers as well as freight vehicles traveling throughout the U.S. and Canada every year now.

Even if the Trump/ Pence administration intends to renegotiate the terms of the NAFTA agreement, or to withdraw from NAFTA entirely, people on both sides of the  border would still benefit from linking a toll pass system with those of our neighbors to the north, if the transportation agencies in Canada are willing to agree to linking their electronic toll transponder system to ours.  There are presently at least nine separate electronic toll systems operating in Canada: the Quickpass and the TreO systems operate in British Columbia, the E-Pass and the MAC Pass systems are installed in the highways in Nova Scotia, drivers use the Strait Pass to pay the toll on the Confederation Bridge between New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, the highways in Ontario use both the HOT Lanes and the 407 ETR Highway systems, and drivers in Quebec use the Le Lien Intelligen and the A30 Express systems.

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...

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