Toll Insight spoke with Shannon Swank, Chief Marketing Officer & Co-Founder of PlusPass Inc.
1. Tell us about your background and experience in the tolling industry.
I started my career in tolling with Caseta Technologies in 1999. Caseta was sold to Telvent in 2007, then to Schneider Electric, and finally to Kapsch. I left shortly after we were sold to Schneider in 2012 to start PlusPass/BancPass. My partner, Glenn Deitiker and I had been working on PlusPass conceptually since 2005. It’s been a “labor of love” for quite some time. Throughout my career, I’ve had the great fortune of moving through this industry from traditional integration into cutting-edge and innovative solutions. I truly enjoy that there are so many opportunities and directions which the tolling industry offers.
2. What does PlusPass do?
PlusPass™ was developed to service those users that are otherwise challenging for an agency to capture and/or maintain. If an agency has a tag penetration of 90%, for example, PlusPass™ focuses on the last 10% that cannot, or are unwilling to opt into a traditional agency account. We provide payment solutions for tolling through a Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) architected platform. We have two solutions, a phone-app solution, and a toll transponder solution. The PlusPass™ solution is an app-based solution that has been operational since 2013. PlusPass was launched initially under the name PToll®, short for Phone Toll. It made sense to rebrand because our technology and patented IP was continuing to evolve and could easily be leveraged for all types of MaaS or what we call, Pay In Motion™ payments. We wanted to license our IP to others as well. We currently license to a commercial vehicle provider.
PlusPass™ allows a user to download the app, take a picture of their license plate, associate payment (Visa, MasterCard, PayPal), and then drive the road. For cash-based or under-served users, they can prefund the account using cash. The user simply goes to a participating retailer, pull up a barcode populated within the app, the cashier will scan the barcode and the user can load funds directly into their PlusPass™ account using cash. This solution is for the infrequent, untagged, and cash-based user.
Our transponder-based solution, BancPass, is a program where users can obtain a transponder from a participating retailer and fund the account in a Pay-As-You-Go manner. The program also targets cash-based, under-served, and infrequent users. Users can easily purchase a Starter Kit at their local participating retailer such as Walgreens, CVS, HEB, and many others through our great partnership with InComm. We also have direct relationships with Kroger and the entire family of Kroger grocers, as well as Costco. When purchasing the Starter Kit, the account is already pre-funded with tolls and the user is required to register their license plate and provide a cell phone number. There’s no minimum balance required, and we provide text message account updates when a user’s balance is low. Our partners include the Kansas Turnpike Authority, Georgia’s State Road and Tollway Authority, and the Harris County Toll Road Authority. BancPass has been operational since 2015 and provides one of the most equitable solutions for cash-based and under-served users. Users can participate in all-electronic tolling, pay the lowest toll rate, and manage their accounts in a manner that is consistent with their budgets. Equity is such an important aspect to transportation. We are proud to do our part.
3. What has been your experience with agencies and their reaction to third-party apps and solutions?
It’s been mixed. As a third-party provider, we are focused on capturing users that are not already agency customers. There are some agencies that welcome the opportunity to have a third-party issue accounts to users who don’t already have accounts. Getting paid for these transactions and the operational relief it brings to their violation or pay-by-mail systems is very attractive. Servicing the cash-based users in the most equitable way possible is also of great interest. There are others that are much more resistant to use third parties. They are concerned with the level of customer service that these third parties will provide. My response to this objection, which is not always popular, is to ask how would the agency, themselves, know if they are giving good customer service? They are the only option for users. Involving third parties provides a bit of risk mitigation as well. When a user is upset with an agency for how their account is handled, they call a local news outlet or legislator. Giving users more options allows them to find a provider that fits their needs. Again, these are also users who do not have accounts, for whatever reason. I liken most of these solutions to credit card companies. They all work relatively the same; however, I have an American Express because I like their points and rewards program. My mother has a Southwest Airlines MasterCard because she likes the flight rewards. These types of choices will become increasingly important as others enter the market and MaaS continues to expand. Customers have choices for payments in every other aspect of their lives. As an industry, we need to catch up.
4. The toll industry has typically been slow to change. With technology evolving faster than most can keep up with, what are the risks that you envision the industry is facing?
My concern is that because agencies are reticent to participate, we may be faced with a situation that is untenable for all involved. There are many opportunities and reasons for the industry to engage third parties, not only for payments, but tolling and Road User Charging in general. Rideshare, OEMs / auto manufacturers, Connected and Automated Vehicle technology companies, third-party payment vendors, and MaaS providers are all eager to participate. Whether it be on the infrastructure side with smart vehicles and roadside sensors, account management and payments, or MaaS conveniences, we run the risk of living with a solution that others architect. If you think about Uber and Lyft, they weren’t exactly disruptors; they were innovators. They took an already established industry, regulated by government agencies, and turned it on its head with better, faster, more convenient ride services. The lobbying power that facilitated this effort was astonishing. When you think about the OEMs / auto manufacturers, Visa / MasterCard, American Express, Apple & Google Pay within our current environment – the amount, and type of lobbying power could crush us. Having a politician tell us how to toll and connect to third parties could be detrimental. Toll systems are complex financial systems with lots of nuances. As we all know, technology and the integration thereof, is typically not a politician’s forte. We must start working together and have no time to waste.
5. You are the Chair for the Emerging Technologies - Tolling and Customer Service Work Group. Tell us about your progress within this group.
This is my third year chairing this work group. Our focus has been to facilitate the exploration and connection between agencies and third parties. This includes a white paper developed in 2019 and most recently, the development of a suite of tools to help facilitate the technical interface. Additionally, a standardized legal agreement and customer service benchmarks / rules were also developed. The work group is a volunteer-based; however, it’s important to note that the amount of time, effort, and work products produced would otherwise cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Industry experts including agency personnel, vendors from all different disciplines, third parties, and consultants all participated in these efforts over the last three years. It’s not an insignificant amount of work, and we are hopeful this be very useful for the industry. As mentioned above, the effort is meant to promote our industry to become more open and to view third parties as innovative solutions providers, rather than competitors and disruptors.
Thank you, PlusPass, for sponsoring Toll Insight!