Toll Insight spoke with Tom Kramek, Senior Program Director at Kapsch TrafficCom North America.
1. Let’s start with the tolling industry’s conversion to All-Electronic Tolling (AET). The transition was already underway, but it has been accelerated by COVID-19. Please can you comment with your observations and perspectives on this trend.
The pandemic has absolutely accelerated the conversion to AET. We have customers who were well underway with their conversion. Many of these customers used the flexibility of their existing mixed-mode lanes (accepting cash and Automated Vehicle Identification or “AVI”) to go “all electronic” with AET “in place”, as it is sometimes referred to. I also expect those customers who were only considering AET to be making more serious plans. An interesting element of the most recent conversions (both full AET or AET in place) has been customer acceptance and appreciation. While agencies, consultants, and vendors consider the smoothest way to implement and enhance customer understanding, sometimes the best approach is to just “rip off the band-aid” to avoid confusion as much as possible. I think most agencies have had positive feedback from users.
2. Specifically, Kapsch has recently delivered a major, AET conversation project for NYSTA. Tell us about the motivation, objectives, and high-level scope of this project.
Until last year, the New York State Thruway (NYSTA) was a traditional ticketed system, in which patrons would get an entry ticket and pay an exit toll based on the distance traveled. An E-ZPass transponder is used by most patrons, and the number of cash patrons has been slowly decreasing. In 2018, the Governor mandated a conversion to AET by the end of 2020 as part of a plan to modernize and streamline travel in the state. To enact that mandate, NYSTA needed to convert eight barrier plazas plus the entry-exit system for the mainline section of the Thruway from mixed mode (cash/E-ZPass) to AET. They decided to move forward with AET multi-lane toll zones for all high-volume interchanges and use a simpler single lane architecture at the smaller exit and entry plazas. All these components needed to be in place and operational at the time of switchover.
The scope included significant civil work. This included installing 44 gantries at AET zone locations and another 34 gantries for exit plazas, plus repaving, power, and communications infrastructure for the deployment of the tolling equipment. Kapsch worked with NYSTA and their civil contractors to deploy the 44 mainline gantries in less than 10 months, which allowed a transition into revenue service operations a month ahead of their deadline. The magnitude of this deployment is one of - if not the - largest in North America and certainly had the shortest timeline. Kapsch and its subcontractors installed thousands of cameras, laser scanners and other sensors, along with over 112 miles of cabling and almost 400 servers to put the system into service along the entire length of the 570 mile-long Thruway. All this work was completed during the height of the COVID restrictions and was done with a perfect safety record.
3. While there are significant technical challenges with doing a major AET conversion project, can you also talk about the “human side” of such a major undertaking?
A project of this scale must have committed and coordinated teams to succeed. The Kapsch team worked with our dedicated subcontractors throughout the state as an integrated team and worked side-by-side with NYSTA staff and the civil contractor teams. No plan is perfect, but when all the people involved are focused on the same goal, necessary changes are made quickly and with the best interest of the team in mind. As previously mentioned, a major hurdle was encountered with the COVID pandemic, which reached full force in the same month that we started working at the first sites. Kapsch technicians, engineers, and our contractor staff quickly pivoted to adhere to new state and company guidelines for social distancing, use of shared vehicles, travel, and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) requirements. With guidance from the NYSTA safety team, on-site procedures were quickly implemented that protected all staff working at the job sites.
There is another facet of the conversion that should be mentioned, related to operational workforce disruptions. The conversion to AET results in the elimination of toll collector and other support roles, associated with cash collection. The Thruway was cognizant of this fact from the beginning and made significant efforts to move those team members to other roles or provide retirement incentives for others. This shift was accelerated by the COVID pandemic, because collectors are very exposed, and many agencies transitioned to cashless operations, at least temporarily, to protect their staff members.
4. Back on the technology side for tolling, how do you see the state-of-the-art shifting in today’s industry landscape and how is Kapsch supporting the paradigm shifts?
Believe it or not, even though Kapsch RFID technology has been the gold standard in AVI systems for 25 years, since the formation of E-ZPass, we do see an acceleration to a tag-less future. Kapsch has always been a company that thrives on innovation – as we say – you do not get to be a 125+ year-old company without embracing innovation and being your own disruptor. We see three major technology shifts in the future that will lessen the need for large infrastructure build-out: video, mobile, and connected vehicle. Future systems will have to be more accessible and payment methods must be more convenient. With the advent of more accurate and inexpensive Automated License Plate Recognition (ALPR) systems, video is slowly taking the place of AVI in many systems. Pay-by-Plate offers the traveling public more access and convenience for payment. In early 2020, Kapsch introduced its mobile tolling app, Uproad, to the California market. Since then, Uproad has gone live across the U.S. in Texas, Virginia, and Illinois and now services thousands of users in those states. Mobile apps offer regular and causal users an enhanced driving, account management, and payment experience. It even can make driving on a toll road fun!
5. Kapsch has recently announced new partnerships, including with Ford. Please tell us about the company’s partnership approach and how that helps to position for the future.
The other facet of a tag-less future will be in the connected and automated vehicle space, an area in which Kapsch has been investing for over a decade. Kapsch has partnered with the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) and Ford Motor Company (Ford) to test a next generation of connected vehicles that provide real-time toll services without the use of traditional tolling infrastructure. Kapsch has installed its dual-mode / dual-active RIS-9260 Roadside Unit (RSU) at toll gantries on the MoPac Express Lanes and on the 45SW Toll Road, both of which are managed by CTRMA in Austin. The RSUs communicate with Ford test vehicles using "Cellular Vehicle to Everything” (C-V2X) connected vehicle technology.
Test drivers in Ford vehicles receive visual and verbal messages as they approach and pass through tolling points. On the MoPac Express Lane, which has variable pricing that changes based on traffic volumes, drivers will be notified about the toll rate prior to choosing whether to use the lane. On the 45SW Toll Road, drivers will be notified about the toll rate before passing through the tolling location. On both roadways, as drivers pass through the tolling location, the vehicle will confirm that the toll was paid. Drivers will have the option to access their toll user account for a receipt and perform other account functions. The Ford vehicles can also communicate with Kapsch roadside units to provide drivers with real-time information about roadway conditions, including accidents, congestion, lane closures, speed limits, and changing weather conditions.