Kathryn Hartzell, Penn Turnpike

Updated: Nov 3

Toll Insight spoke with Kathryn Hartzell, Director of Technology and Innovation Management & Co-Chair, Innovation Council at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC).


The Pennsylvania Turnpike’s 552 mile roadway system comprises of the primary 359 mile east–west toll highway that runs across the state from the New Jersey to the Ohio borders, a 110 mile Northeastern Extension and 83 miles of Western Expansions.


1. Tell us about the Pennsylvania Turnpike (Penn Turnpike).

While I grew up riding the Turnpike to visit family, sharing countless family memories, admittedly I did not know much about the history of the organization when I began working here about seven years ago. I have since learned to appreciate what makes PTC special in countless ways. Our spirit of innovation began even before the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened on October 1st, 1940. From the vision to create a long-distance, limited-access highway in the late 1930s to allow more efficient and uninterrupted travel across Pennsylvania to the invention of the Sonic Nap Alert Pattern (SNAP) in the 1980s to improve roadway safety, finding new and better ways to meet our customers' needs in the safest manner possible has always been our mission. As we look forward to the 2020s, we have expanded to a 552-mile, cashless roadway system while maintaining our legacy as an industry leader as America's First Superhighway.


2. Tell us about the Innovation Council and Penn Turnpike’s approach to innovation.

Innovation has been a focus for PTC since the beginning and remains central to our culture, as demonstrated in our Strategic Plan. One of our core commitments is to be a leader in transportation services. We continue to work to ingrain innovation in our culture and everything that we do, which includes our Innovation Council, which was established about six years ago. Our approach to the Council itself embodies the ideas of innovation and continuous improvement. Every year we rotate in a new co-chair to help lead the Council, which allows for us to bring new and fresh ideas. Following this approach, the council has evolved from a focus on vendor and employee presentations to include collaborative problem solving for the enterprise.


We also recognize that innovation does not always have to involve technology. In the last few years, PTC has placed an emphasis on business process improvements. We have identified operational processes ripe for improvement, which result in both hard and soft dollar savings, allowing us to ultimately get more work done. Being an 80-year-old organization brings with it the challenge and opportunity to focus internally on how we can be more efficient in our service delivery, while remaining on the forefront of technological advancements.


3. What are some recent standout technology or operations transformation projects which you have led, either successes or those generating lessons learned?

Our key guiding principles at PTC include safety, innovation, and customer service. One recent initiative that embodies this spirit was awarded the International Bridge, Tunnel, and Tolling Association's (IBTTA) President’s Award for Excellence, the association’s highest achievement, as well as the Technology Toll Excellence Award. Catch It Early, Act, Analyze and Review (CAAR) is suite of tools created as a collaborative effort between our GeoAnalytics and Traffic, Engineering and Operations Departments. The tools combine Geographic Information System (GIS) applications and dashboards to merge and visualize data layers and real-time feeds with data including video, photos, radar, weather, traffic speeds, traffic conditions, and vehicle locations. Through PTC's efforts to mature our data into actionable information, our incident clearance times have decreased by an average of 40 minutes, resulting in reduced backlogs and reduced times for responder and safety personnel on the roadway to provide our paying customers a faster and safer commute.


Overall, the innovations that I have directly been involved with in the last few years have been more focused on our process improvement efforts. I have had the opportunity to pilot training efforts among our leadership academy and technology staff using lean process improvement techniques that aim to empower every employee to directly improve the very work that they do - without the need to spend money or necessarily introduce technology. In early 2021, we will be launching a new program to lead process improvement projects as well as to provide training to all employees, with the aim to further enhance our innovative culture and ensure that every employee can influence and improve the way that we work.


4. Tell us about the ways that Covid-19 has impacted your organization and work, both internally and externally.

2020 has been an unprecedented year for many organizations, including PTC. Precautions and mitigations resulting from the pandemic resulted in our expedited move to all cashless tolling last Spring, as well as moving to remote work for a large portion of our workforce. Logistically speaking, we were prepared for these changes due to policies, improvements, and technologies that we have been putting in place for many years. However, there was no way to specifically be prepared for the human and personal impact. During this time, our CEO Mark Compton has shared this quote by Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel: "Bad companies are destroyed by crisis, good companies survive them, great companies are improved by them." We are determined to focus on the opportunities that this year has presented as a catalyst toward our future, to focus on continuing the momentum of the innovations that we have implemented due to our physical separation and to continue to be a leader not only in transportation but in the overall service delivery.


5. What do you think are the key ongoing needs and challenges for the tolling industry?

I believe the major challenges facing the tolling industry in coming years include both policy and technology. With the future potential for a transition from fuel to mileage-based taxes, the tolling industry needs to remain relevant, appealing, and sustainable by being leaders in customer service delivery. We also need to remain at the forefront of disruptive technologies. Technology touches everything that we do, and we need to be focused and vigilant with the security of our infrastructure. Just as important though, we must focus on modernizing how we do business behind the scenes. We must be agile in our operations if we want to be poised for the rapidly changing landscape with which we are faced. This needs to include how we remain relevant as an employer – if we want to operate like global leaders, we need to stop thinking like public sector agencies.