Why Can’t America Have a Single Tolling System? Because Bureaucracy

In a perfect world, the electronic tolling infrastructure in the United States would be Mastercard seamless: Any transponder would get you through any toll plaza, debiting your account as you breeze across bridges and through tunnels with interstate abandon. But you can't. You should be able to though: In 2012 Congress passed a law requiring the nation's various electronic tolling authorities to come together and make their systems interoperable by October 2016. Should be easy, right? Transponders are simple radio devices. Pop them all on the same frequency, job done.

But, just like they foul up regional transportation systems (why oh why does the San Francisco Bay Area have dozens of transportation agencies?), back-office bureaucratics—specifically the rules that make sure agencies get paid—intervene. The result is a patchwork of regional linkages and a harsh truth: The result is a patchwork of regional linkages, and a half-dozen states running solo, running a year and counting behind on their goal of sea-to-shining-sea interoperability. Except for the most avid road-trippers, this is not an actual problem. But digging into the reasons for this shortcoming turns up the sort of Byzantine rules and internecine squabbling that is all to often guilty of hobbling American transportation infrastructure.

You Shall E-ZPass

The idea of electronic tolling dates back to the 1950s, when Canadian economist William Vickrey imagined vehicles with integrated transponders cruising through sensor-studded cities. Norway put the first real-world system into operation in 1987. “Toll operators thought, 'Hey, this is something that will cut down on labor costs and also be a convenience to our customers who don't want to carry cash everywhere,'” says Patrick Jones, executive director and CEO of the International Bridge, Tunnel, and Turnpike Association. The Dallas North Texas Tollway installed the first US electronic system in 1989. Early on, it and those that followed emulated stop-and-go cash collection: You'd pull up, halt, and an electronic reader would scan your tag.

Those soon evolved into the roll-through systems common today, easing congestion, cleaning the air (fewer cars spending less time idling), and leading to a sharp decline in toll plaza accidents.

Drivers no longer needed to stop and pay with cash but instead faced the prospect of stuffing their glove compartments full of transponders, each one keyed to pay the owner of whichever bridge, tunnel, or turnpike traversed on the regular. In 1993, the metropolitan region encompassing eastern Pennsylvania through New Jersey to New York City included roads and bridges operated by seven transit agencies. For regular commuters, that could have meant keeping track of seven chunks of plastic. Those agencies averted that nightmare by coming up with E-ZPass. Today that system connects bridges, tunnels, and roads run by 38 agencies in 16 states. For drivers traveling from Maine to Virginia, New York to Kentucky, the experience is seamless.

The business deal worked out by that collective to make sure every participating agency got paid for every trip through their toll plazas, is a bit more complicated though. Say you bought your E-ZPass transponder through the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, then drive over the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan, then take the Queens-Midtown Tunnel to check out Long Island City. As you pass through each toll, your E-ZPass sends out a code telling the plaza's sensor where you came from. The agency that owns that toll plaza (the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for the bridge, New York's MTA for the tunnel) sends the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission a bill for your trip. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission pays that agency and deducts the corresponding amount from your balance. An interoperability agreement always pays its debts.

The E-ZPass model works because the 38 agencies now involved have agreed to the same basic rules. Without common rules, each would have to forge 37 peer-to-peer agreements with all its fellows in order to serve the same regional customer base.

Other regions manage these networks a bit differently. Down south, Florida's Turnpike Enterprise acts as a clearinghouse for partner agencies within the state, plus North Carolina, and, beginning in 2018, South Carolina. “This hub concept makes sense because it means agencies don't have to make peer-to-peer agreements with every other toll system they want to work with,” says Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, the Florida Turnpike Enterprise's executive director and CEO.

“The challenge is trying to blend the different business rules that agencies have,” says Gutierrez-Scaccetti. The deals each agency has to work out are legion. For example, say the agency you bought your pass from has a pretty lenient negative account balance policy—they let you run it down to minus $15 before declaring your tag delinquent. But then you travel over some bridge owned by a tightfisted agency that won't let you pass if your account has less than $5 left. None shall pass!

At the regional scale, most of these contestable minutiae are resolved. Hence, huge networks like E-ZPass and the Florida hub. There's also a big hub in Texas that includes Oklahoma and Kansas, and all of California is interoperable under FasTrak. Six other states operate as little toll islands unto themselves. The remaining 15 states don’t do any tolling at all.1

They See Me Tollin’

Unless you work as Jack Kerouac, this probably doesn't bother you. But there are people who spend their lives traversing the country: truck and bus drivers. Drivers with glove boxes full of transponders, and mailboxes full of bills from different agencies. Maybe not the worst thing about a tough job, but still an unnecessary hardship.

Which brings us back to the grand unified theory of American toll roads. The tolling industry had been moving toward nationwide interoperability for a few years before Congress gave it a deadline. Passed in 2012, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (short-winded wonks call it MAP-21) contains a provision stating that all toll facilities on federal-aid highways had to introduce interoperable toll collection facilities, in the interest of making it easier for everyone to pony up the cash that keeps America's infrastructure intact, no matter where they're driving. The law gave tolling agencies four years to get it done. That’s the deadline that passed more than a year ago.

They likely could have met that deadline—if every agency had agreed to collectively scrub all its previous technology and business practices, and sink hundreds of millions of dollars into something new and uniform. Naturally, the negotiations on the way to reaching a consensus would likely have dragged on—because of course they would—causing an industry-wide migraine, disrupting millions of customers along the way. Instead of imposing a technical or regulatory solution, the MAP-21 writers opted for a "figure it out amongst yourselves" approach and neglected to include a penalty for being late. No surprise, then, that this still isn't settled.

“Most of these agencies are very local, creatures of a city or state government, and focused on daily traffic and large construction projects,” says Neil Gray, the International Bridge, Tunnel, and Turnpike Association's director of government affairs. Congressional mandate aside, the agencies are working toward, but not preoccupied with, providing a seamless experience to serial cross-country road-trippers.

Hence the current process, wherein agencies quietly quilt themselves into larger and larger networks. And unless you are constantly crossing the continent, you'll never notice once it all comes together. It'll be a minor annoyance wiped away, like a bug under a soapy wiper.


Road Works

1Story updated at 12 EST on November 23, 2017 to include the correct number of states with no toll roads.

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