Toll Insight spoke with Dr. Patricia Hendren, Executive Director of The Eastern Transportation Coalition (TETC).
1. In early 2020, the Eastern Transportation Coalition published a technical memo related to Toll Payment Methods. Please tell us about the motivation and context around why this topic was important to address.
The Coalition serves its members (state and local Departments of Transportation, transportation authorities, transit and rail agencies, port authorities, motor vehicle agencies, state police and public safety, etc., along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard) by helping them solve challenging transportation issues, together, across are three program areas, including Freight, Transportation Systems Management and Operations, and Innovation. In the case of our Tolling Working Group (officially called the Tolling Violation Enforcement and Reciprocity Group or TVER, a part of the Innovation Program), our members came together motivated to address a very sticky issue: collecting unpaid tolls from out-of-state drivers. The group began by exploring some models for reciprocity and sharing strategies and data.
While collecting tolls from those who have not paid is critical to revenue, members of the TVER group also recognized that there are other ways to come at the problem, such as reducing the number of violations upfront. Often, those violations are not intentional, but result from limited payment options, especially in an age of electronic tolling. So we asked the question: How can we make it easier for customers to pay? What strategies are currently in use, or could be adopted, and which ones are likely to make the greatest impact on reducing the numbers of unpaid tolls?
2. What were the key outcomes and takeaways from this 2020 memo?
The memo documented a range of payment methods, from mobile apps, to in-person services at retail establishments, to kiosks, to websites enabled to accept payments. One of the distinguishing factors among the toll payment options is the account types that govern the relationship between the customer and the tolling authority. A transponder-based system ensures that the tolling authority has a direct relationship with a customer through the registered device. Introducing a mobile app through a third-party can add another factor into the relationship or remove the authority-customer relationship entirely. The same can happen with a pre-paid tolling card purchased through a retail vendor.
In many cases it is the account arrangement preference of the agency that governs the payment types that they adopt or are willing to consider. For example, an agency that would like to maintain a direct relationship with the customer is less likely to engage with a third-party vendor offering an alternative payment option (e.g., mobile apps or cards purchased at a retail center) to customers. While the agency may benefit from the guaranteed payment, as some vendors ensure, they may not feel comfortable handing off the customer service and all relationship management to a third-party.
Another factor is the way these possible account types best serve different customers. For example, the un-banked or under-banked customer may not be able to establish an account through a transponder or have a pre-loaded system. They may, however, be able to pay as they go in person through payment networks (most commonly established through a retail establishment).
3. How did this work highlight specific strategies or activities used by members of your Coalition?
With research disseminated through the memo, the TVER working group met in April 2020 to share reactions and discuss lessons learned. Five tolling authorities from the TETC region, all using different payment strategies, talked about their experiences. These authorities included: Georgia’s State Road and Tollway Authority, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, North Carolina Turnpike Authority, Virginia DOT, and Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise. The strategies discussed included everything from a re-loadable gift card payment model used in Georgia, to an app for E-ZPass customers in Pennsylvania, to the development of a standard process to engage third-party mobile apps for toll collection and payment in Florida. This unique workshop model -- conduct the industry research and then illustrate with the real work going on among peer agencies -- works well for our members by quite literally connecting theory and practice.
4. Later in 2020, the Eastern Transportation Coalition followed up with another technical memo, this time focused on the more nuanced topic of Mobile Apps for Toll Payments and Account Management. What was the context and impetus for continuing to explore this topic?
Participants at the April 2020 workshop indicated that mobile payment apps held the most promise, especially in the context of COVID-19 and the precipitous shift to electronic tolling as a result. This event only began to scratch the service of what was revealed to be a complex set of options and considerations for implementation or adoption of mobile app toll payment systems. With a strong interest in learning more, members of the working group asked for a deeper exploration into the options available, experiences of agencies, and factors to consider.
The data collected and summarized in this memo was presented to the group in a December 2020 workshop with illustrative experience from three tolling agencies, each taking three different approaches to mobile apps. Specifically:
Transportation Corridor Agencies (based in Southern California) has worked with a developer to offer a customized app, allowing users to open and maintain accounts, pay tolls and violations and estimate tolls. These functions are essentially the same as services offered through the customer service center representatives, which has reduced the demand on those employees considerably. Customers without an account can also pay tolls using their license plate and credit card information.
Virginia DOT was interested in opening toll payment to third-party vendors. To facilitate this, they developed a standard process and agreement, including fees assessed to the vendor for video matching of license plates to cover agency costs. As of December 2020, they were about to launch their third vendor partnership. Customers have a choice about which vendor to use for their toll payments.
The North Carolina Turnpike Authority is taking a third approach by moving away from providing back-office services and moving to cloud-based APIs for vendor access, that will provide greater flexibility as technology evolves and changes. As of December 2020, they were embarking on pilots with some initial vendors to understand how the customer engagement process works with multiple apps and work out issues that arise. The Turnpike Authority, in partnership with the app vendors, were excited to explore cross-marketing with toll road usage and incentives like free products at restaurants.
5. What were the key outcomes and takeaways from this additional memo as well as any of your direct engagement with mobile app vendors?
Our research emphasized the sheer number of options and approaches currently available in the marketplace, a clear result of the current pace of changing technology. Agencies have a lot to gain from mobile apps but could benefit from first clarifying agency goals to best select a technology. The following questions are a good starting point:
What are the main goals in adding an app as a payment option?
What relationship with customers is desired?
What features are required?
To further inform agencies considering their options, the TVER Working Group hosted two vendor forums in early 2021. In total, eleven mobile app vendors presented their products and services via a structured format to members of the working group. Participants were able to see the options in comparison to each other and better understand some of the unique solutions available in the market today.
But there is more to do. As the new “shiny” technology evolves, agencies need each other more than ever to learn and share what is working and where the solutions may fall short. This is what our TVER working group is designed to do – to provide a forum where only the tolling authorities have their own space to explore, collaborate, and dig into the most challenging issues together. How can they best leverage the available technology, while being good stewards of their customers’ dollars? How can they work together to serve their customers – many of whom are one and the same? We look forward to continuing to find ways to support our members as they explore the adoption of new technology to serve their customers.
6. Under your leadership, the Eastern Transportation Coalition has been at the forefront of many other, key transportation issues. Please tell us more about the Coalition’s breadth of focus, whether now or as anticipated in the near future.
The Coalition’s program areas are built around our members’ needs. We have three core program areas, as mentioned above: TSMO, Freight and Innovation. The work we do within each – projects (e.g., mileage-based user fee pilots), training programs (e.g., Freight Academy), data marketplaces (e.g., vehicle probe data marketplace), etc. are all solutions to challenges which our members face. Our FY2021 Annual Reviewprovides an overview of what we accomplished this past year, and our FY2022 Work Plan details what we have committed to doing in the next 12 months.
As an example, we are adding an Electric Vehicle initiative this year, as a direct response to the request of our Executive Board. Always careful to ensure our efforts are 1) not duplicating work being done elsewhere and 2) focused on implementable solutions that our members can use today, we will spend this first year exploring EVs, the DOT role, and how TETC can best provide support in our region. Focusing across these program areas also allows us to make relevant connections. Looking more broadly, there is a clear nexus to be anticipated as connected vehicles, electric vehicles, mileage-based user fees and tolls all continue to be part of the conversation. This puts us right where we, TETC, like to be: connecting for solutions.