Toll Insight spoke with Christopher Tomlinson, Executive Director at the State Road & Tollway Authority.
1. Please tell us briefly about the scope of SRTA’s responsibilities.
The State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA) serves as a toll operator and transportation financing arm for the State of Georgia. As a toll operator, we operate a Customer Service Center, handle transponder fulfillment, and manage our dynamic pricing systems, including the setting of rate tables and system overrides. We are always looking to improve and increase the value proposition for our customers. To this end, we are about to launch a new parking services initiative with the Atlanta airport, and we see this program expanding to include other facilities such as parks and other controlled access facilities.
Regarding our transportation financing responsibilities, many people may be surprised to know that our financing work goes way beyond our tolling program. We have a long history of working with our partners at the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) and the State of Georgia in general to issue alternative and innovative forms of project funding and bond financing to help advance the State’s transportation objectives. Some of these initiatives include administering the Georgia Transportation Infrastructure Bank, which provides grants and low interest loans to local transportation projects that feature innovative approaches or spurring local economic development. We issue non-toll related bond debt, such as our recent sale of $600M in GARVEE bonds, which are utilized by GDOT to accelerate their program of projects. And last, but not least, we serve as a financing and contracting conduit for GDOT’s P3 program, which again allows the state to advance projects that could not otherwise move forward until the State was to amass the full cost of the project to bid out such work.
2. Given SRTA’s direct role with transit, you have some interesting opportunities to implement multi-modal projects, such as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) along Express Lanes. Tell us about how highways, tolling and transit mix in your world.
SRTA’s role with transit has evolved and will continue to evolve over time. Dating back to 2011, we have partnered with transit as a critical component to addressing congestion in our express lane corridors. Many people do not realize that the original I-85 HOT lanes $180M project budget was one-third for tolling and two-thirds for transit, in the form of new rolling stock as well as park-and-ride lots. From this early multimodal project, we recognized that the transit routes operating in the Express Lanes had a higher on-time performance than other routes in our service area. In fact, the promising results of "multi-modalism" directly contributed to the consolidation of Georgia’s three state-level transportation authorities – SRTA, Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA) and the Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority (ATL) – under “one roof”, with a common focus on improving mobility.
While SRTA, ATL and GRTA are technically three separate legal authorities, we have built a single enterprise that spends little time on the distinctions of the three and instead focuses on the integrations of being a multi-modal planning and operations entity. We have embarked on a strategy of identifying and developing multi-modal corridors. Our present efforts are focused on the State Route 400 (SR 400) corridor and the top half of our ring Interstate-285. These corridors are among the most congested in metro Atlanta and often rank in the top tier of the most congested urban highway segments in the U.S.
Led by GDOT, the State is implementing the Major Mobility Investment Program (MMIP). MMIP is a strategic set of projects that will create additional capacity, improve freight movement, provide transportation improvements and efficiencies, enhance safety, and decrease travel times. The program includes five Express Lane projects, and SRTA/ATL is involved in the tolling, financing, and transit components of these projects. Specifically, we are working on the development of the BRT components for the SR 400 and I-285 “Top End” Express Lane projects. We also are looking at our regional commuter bus service known as “Xpress”, to see how we can improve performance of our routes in these corridors and potentially expand service once the lanes open. SRTA/ATL’s responsibilities include tolling design for all the projects, working in partnership with GDOT on the P3 financing structure, as well as potential transit elements such as new park-and-ride or station locations, and identifying potential transit financial benefits which may include capital and/or operational funding towards transit in the Express Lanes.
3. Geographically, you are at the cross-roads of a few, legacy toll interoperability networks. But those barriers are now being broken down. Tell us about Georgia’s and SRTA’s leadership role in this space.
SRTA has strived to stay at the forefront of national and regional interoperability. Through IBTTA, we were an early supporter and financial contributor towards the Association’s national interoperability efforts, working with agencies and the private sector on business rules, technology standards and MUTCD revisions to support a standardized approach to toll interoperability and transaction financial reconciliation. These efforts led to the successful, regional linkage between Florida, Georgia and North Carolina that exists today. We believe that this foundation has positioned us well as we work on connectivity with other peer agencies within E-ZPass, which we were proud to join as of October 2020. We hope to be connected for interoperability by late 2021 as E-ZPass’ first agency whose primary protocol is 6C, resulting in toll interoperability across the entire Eastern Seaboard.
4. From a tolling back office perspective, you have also been an innovator in account management and revenue collection business models. What has worked well for SRTA to “move the needle” and what partnerships with private sector service providers have been established?
Over the years, SRTA has explored a variety of innovative partnerships in toll revenue collection. In conjunction with InComm, we pioneered an innovative retail product called the “Pay N Go” Peach Pass. This product allowed motorists to establish an anonymous, cash-based Peach Pass account by simply picking up a transponder “starter kit” that was activated at the point of purchase much like buying a Visa gift card. Last year, we evolved the product into a new partnership with BancPass (now known as PlusPass) that retains the retail convenience of the original product but addressed the key drawback of a fully anonymous product – the inability to communicate with the customer, for example, if there was a problem. The new product also shifts the revenue collection risk from SRTA to our partner PlusPass, who is in a better position to coordinate with users of their product, allowing us to concentrate on our facility operations.
Also, in the area of revenue collection, we entered into an innovative revenue collection contract with Professional Account Management (PAM) Services that revolutionizes the way we address potential leakage of out-of-state toll violators. Our contract allows us to receive the toll revenue associated with a non-Peach Pass account, out-of-state vehicle that used one of our toll facilities, while our partners at PAM try to collect the toll plus fees due on the toll violation. We then participate in a revenue sharing agreement for the monies collected above the initial toll amount paid upfront to us by PAM. This has been a positive win-win approach that has virtually eliminated the concept of leakage for out of state violators. We are now applying a similar approach to in-state violators who do not initially respond to our internal efforts to contact them and collect. We believe that this is the model that all agencies with electronic tolls should try to implement within our industry.
5. As an obvious leader in our industry and 2019 President of IBTTA, what are your overall views about the challenges and opportunities we must continue to focus on in the near- and medium-term?
The challenge we face in our industry is to find, train and retain new talent to the tolling sector. It is hard for me to believe that IBTTA has existed for over 89 years and facilities such as the Pennsylvania Turnpike have been open for over 80 years; yet, there isn’t a single engineering school in the U.S. that has a major or concentration in tolling. Most of our greatest industry leaders simply fell into tolling by happenstance. To meet the challenges of tomorrow, we need to be more purposeful in developing our next generation of leaders and instituting programs to groom and retain talented individuals in the middle of their careers.
There are many opportunities in front of us, but I will highlight one key area that was represented by the theme of my year as IBTTA President – Driving the Future of Mobility. We have the opportunity to guide the transportation sector as a whole as it struggles with the promise and perils presented by the convergence of technology and mobility options. If we focus on tolling for the sake of tolling, we are missing the opportunity to best serve customers’ holistic mobility needs. Currently, we toll some facilities to help finance much needed transportation infrastructure; others, we toll to help manage demand and throughput. While doing so, we have developed expertise in financial payment systems, customer interactions, sophisticated technology deployments and alternative financing methodologies such as P3s. This collective experience positions us to be a driving force as the U.S. and international markets struggle with the best way to finance infrastructure and move people along their journeys in the wake of the declining efficacy of fuel taxes. Our systems, human talent and experience are tailor-made to fulfill the needs of the broader transportation sector, if we are bold enough to just see that we are much, much more than just the tolling people. We are the finance people, the technology people, the Road User Charging people, the transit people, as well as the road & bridge people, because collectively, we have experience in all these areas. But before others will see us in this broader light, we must first recognize it, embrace it, and cultivate it in ourselves.