Toll Insight spoke with J.J. Eden, Executive Director at the North Carolina Turnpike Authority.
1. Please tell us briefly about your career trajectory, past and current roles, and passion for innovation.
I am most thankful to the many people that have helped me in my career. The most important accomplishments of my career have been realized by recognizing talented people and investing in their growth and success that lead to outstanding achievements for the organization. Success is not technology-focused; success is always about the people around you.
My first job was for fifteen years at Syntonic Technology (now TransCore). From there, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC) recruited me to manage facilities and the toll integration project. I spent ten years at the PTC, where we deployed some innovative work with incredibly talented individuals. Our tasks included installing one of the first wide-area networks in the industry, establishing the first fuel management system, and developing the first facilities management system used in a tunnel control system. While at PTC, I also co-authored the first Maintenance Online Management System (MOMS) and co-founded the "E-ZPass Group."
I eventually left PTC and, for the next ten years, worked in the private sector with Lockheed Martin IMS and then the Washington Group, deploying innovative solutions to help clients efficiently move traffic while collecting revenue. At that time, I started an advisory group that focused on building a diverse team and providing system operations and financial expertise to support the planning and implementation of toll systems.
In 2006, I joined the North Carolina Turnpike Authority (NCTA) to help pioneer All-Electronic Tolling (AET) as the Chief Operating Officer. At NCTA, we practically had a “blank canvas” since no toll project had been constructed in over 150 years. North Carolina was in the perfect position to be innovative, and these innovations eventually would help change the toll industry. The Triangle Expressway was our original AET project, primarily developed as a commuter route. This project was one of the first greenfield AET projects, and it was being financed during a significant recession. It was an opportunity to prove the benefits of All-Electronic Tolling and provide non-stop travel for our toll road customers.
I spent the next ten years at AECOM, focusing on building a top-tier team, that understood the impacts of future technology and integrated tolling infrastructure. I re-joined NCTA in 2019 as Executive Director, where we are continuing the drive to innovation. I work with a diverse team to continue to mature our processes, systems, and operations to provide mature revenue collection systems. I hope to foster a more sustainable organization that will continue to offer more projects across the State of North Carolina and prepare the industry and state for the future of transportation.
I currently serve as President of the Alliance for Toll Innovation (formerly Alliance for Toll Interoperability) and as board member of E-ZPass, the International Bridge Tunnel and Turnpike Association and the OmniAir Consortium.
2. NCTA has, under your leadership, become a recognized leader in "paving the way" for the future of our Industry. Please tell us about the Authority's most impactful efforts, past and present.
Due to North Carolina's position between regions with different tolling technologies, interoperability was necessary for our program's success, mainly due to opening as an all-electronic system. In this effort, we have developed video tolling, hosted the industry-changing video shootout, tested and deployed multi- (dual-, then tri-) protocol tags and readers. We are now the country's most interoperable agency. The North Carolina Turnpike Authority had started the Alliance for Toll Interoperability (ATI) to serve as a technology-agnostic venue for toll operators to identify and test new products and services to propel our agency and the industry forward. ATI continues to be a venue for public and private partners to discuss and innovate advancements in the industry. (More on ATI later.)
NCTA has used technologies to launch two new AET facilities to provide customers choices for their drive on the Triangle Expressway and Monroe Expressway. NCTA is also the back-office provider for the I-77 Express Lanes, a public-private partnership in the Charlotte area. As a result of almost a decade of success for the people of North Carolina, NCTA is currently building the Complete 540 project, which when finished, will be the outer loop around Raleigh and provide congestion relief to local roads. As transportation planning organizations have seen the success of our existing projects and their benefits they bring to communities, NCTA is also evaluating new routes for candidate projects to provide mobility options in other regions of the state.
Covid-19 has changed a lot for our society and industry. At NCTA, we were already submitting all project designs and reviews electronically, which kept construction on schedule. In operations, we continue to move toward a cloud-based, open platform. At NCTA, we are currently testing other pilots, including a pilot with Amazon for transponder fulfillment, an E-ZPass pay at the pump pilot with PaybyCar to push transponder fuel sales, and a third pilot to test the advantage of app-based tolling with Virginia-based GoToll. These pilot projects and those that follow will help NCTA test new technologies and services to determine how to move to a multi-vendor, service-based platform. As we look to the future, we will continue to focus on building systems and operations that facilitate more sustainable growth. Using proven technologies from other industries while maintaining a lean startup-style approach will allow us to provide more mobility options for customers.
3. One specific, open question for toll agencies today is dealing with the emergence of third-party account managers. What are NCTA's perspectives and strategy on this issue?
The industry has traditionally relied on investment in its prepaid, electronic tag-based accounts for its frequent customers, which addresses 70-80 percent of the transactions, but only a fraction of the total customer base. The traditional industry solutions provided for infrequent and casual users are expensive, inefficient and increase the time to collect by several weeks and months after travel.
Third-party providers afford additional payment options for customers who do not want to use the prepaid options and reduce the overall collection risk for agencies. However, one or two providers alone will not serve the needs of the market. The market needs to be open to many qualified third-party providers, including other commercial payment solutions already available in the retail markets. To accommodate the need for an influx of third-party providers, we are working with other toll operators to develop a standard interface to provide the customer a choice in making payment options. If toll operators can effectively create a standard, we will see a reduction in costs, increase in revenue, and add to the customer base.
4. You have recently relaunched ATI as the Alliance for Toll Innovation. Please tell us about the mission, approach, and plans for this organization.
ATI is an organization of 1) collaborators who will work together as a network of agencies to provide an open perspective for the future of tolling, 2) advocates for mobile payments and platforms to lower operating costs and increase options for customers, and 3) leading entrepreneurs in mobility and automation. It is now time to transform tolling to the next level by combining standard processes and interoperable platforms to reduce back-office costs, increase commercialization to natively integrated mobile payments, and provide an API to new mobile solutions and providers. Over the next few months, ATI will be releasing several more initiatives to enhance open industry communication and technology awareness.
5. Finally, as an industry veteran and yet one of our most active, forward-thinking leaders, what do you see as the most significant risks and opportunities for tolling over the next 3-5 years?
When I started in tolling, the industry was focused on moving traffic through toll plazas. Then came a significant change in our basic revenue operations, electronic tolling. After what now looks like a short period came AET. We, as an industry, developed processes and systems to address these customer demands and turned the risk into an opportunity.
Today, the industry is undergoing a more significant change -- the move to commercial, mobile payment systems. As the automotive industry and other industries (parking, fast food, etc.) continue to deploy in-vehicle electronic payments, tolling will be pressured to partner with these innovators. In-vehicle payments are a potential $50B a year business. All the technology is available today, and some car companies have already deployed it. Similarly as with our move to electronic tolling, the public will pressure the industry into adaptation. We should look at in-vehicle systems as an opportunity. This is apparent when you look at the federal government programs aimed at mileage-based user fees replacing the gas tax. The modern car already has all the information needed for mileage-based user fees. As car companies add payment applications to their information systems, they will have all the pieces required. Tolling is at the forefront of these advancements, we have been doing exactly this for decades, and we are in a position to add this service to our programs.
I am confident the entrepreneurial spirit within the industry will continue to transform us into more extensive, mature markets, as technology evolves, and in-vehicle user fees become more viable revenue sources. Tolls will continue to transform into a financial instrument, as we test mileage-based user fees and fund mobility initiatives of multiple variants. Payments with our systems will integrate into retail and mobile payment markets. These transformations in the private sector will create an opportunity to expand our role in transportation across the country. At the same time, more concession partnerships will form from private equity to advance projects.
The tolling industry has been a pioneer in the transportation industry, but we must mature our operations, systems, and processes to compete in today's world. The toll industry has a small number of providers with aged technology, using monolithic and closed systems. If the industry wants to survive and continue to grow, it must innovate. Innovate, in this case, does not mean continued custom-completed applications, but instead, to grow through commercialization. The industry must build agency-driven platforms that allow new payment methods for open competition for business processes to increase payment options and reduce collection risk, while reducing the overall cost of toll collection.
It is time for tolling to reinvent itself again -- so, lead, follow or get out of the way.