Since the emergence of E-Z Pass twenty years ago, toll passes have remained largely a regional game. Not for long.
North Carolina and Florida recently announced that their toll transponders — those little dashboard or windshield devices that pay your tolls electronically — are now interchangeable. The agreement may not seem like much to drivers who don't live in Florida SunPass or Carolina Quick Pass territory. But it's actually the latest step toward a fully interoperable tolling system that will accept every local pass, whatever it may be, anywhere across the country.
"Now with people going cashless, it's more important that all this stuff work together," says J.J. Eden, president of the Alliance for Toll Interoperability, a non-profit group leading the march toward a national transponder network.
Since the emergence of E-Z Pass twenty years ago, toll passes have remained largely a regional game. E-Z Pass operates in most of the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwest, while big states like California (FasTrak), Texas (TxTag), and Florida (SunPass) have their own pass systems. Since the passes aren't interoperable, drivers entering a state outside their system have to pay a toll in cash.
Congress shook up the situation last year by including a toll-interoperability provision in the latest federal highway law. The rule called for all tolls operating on federal-aid highways to work together by the middle of 2016. (Its apparent genesis was one influential Congressman's inability to use a SunPass at a toll in Delaware, which is E-Z Pass terrain.)
Lawmakers failed to outline or provide any oversight for this national system, so ATI has been working behind the scenes to establish one. Last month, at a meeting of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, ATI announced that it had engaged a supplier to build an interoperability "HUB" across North America. Eden says the HUB will start enrolling individual toll agencies this fall and go live by year's end.
In the short term, says Eden, the ATIR HUB will serve as a transaction router to make sure the proper individual is charged for a toll. The electronic toll reader will pick up either an out-of-state pass or a license plate number and send that information back to the driver's home state, where it will draw the fee from the driver's account. The idea is for drivers to take their transponder wherever they travel without worrying about it being accepted, just as they do (more or less) with their Visa or Mastercard.
(E-Z Pass may start a competing transponder hub of its own, but if that happens then the major hubs will simply have to communicate the way the individual tolls do, says Eden. In other words, drivers won't know the difference.)
The long-term goal is to make each person's car into what Eden calls a "mobile payment system." That could take the form of something as simple as a windshield sticker, or be embedded into the vehicle's frame. In such a scenario, it's conceivable that transponders could act even more like credit cards — with fast food restaurants charging the car directly as it pulls into a drive-thru, for instance.
"I think ultimately there's going to be a universal transponder, and I think it'll be built into the car," says Eden. "I just don't know what it will be at this point."
Converting the present toll system into a national one will mean overcoming a number of barriers. For starters, it's unclear whether toll agencies — which, after all, are independent businesses — will implement the new system at their own expensive in the absence of any clear punishment imposed by the government. The other big challenge, says Eden, will be unifying the different technologies used by various agencies across the country, with E-Z Pass using one transponder type and most other passes using another.
"I think within a short period of time you're going to see at least a North and South interoperability," he says. "Then we have to work out how the North and South come together."
Since when has that ever been a problem?