Toll Insight spoke with Tyler Patterson, Toll Operations Manager at Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).
The State of Washington has been integrating tolling as a strategic tool to help manage congestion, enhance mobility, and generate revenue for future improvements. Since 2007, WSDOT has implemented a range of tolled projects that are helping to fund new facilities and manage traffic throughout the state.
1. Tell us about your journey and how you became involved in the tolling industry.
I was first introduced to the idea of a transportation career while working as a river guide. My client, Jim climbed into my raft, and we started our descent into the Green River Gates of the Lodore. After exchanging the usual get-to-know-you type pleasantries, Jim and I clicked. We traded stories – me describing the ever-deepening rock layers, while Jim explaining how transportation worked (or worked the wrong way – as he would say). We talked about infrastructure projects, the planning process, policy, and even discussed the evolution of seating design. We did not talk about tolling.
That river trip altered the course of my life and served as the final call on my first career. I researched graduate schools, took the Graduate Record Examinations (GREs), skied as much as I could, got married, stopped guiding, and moved to Minnesota. A few weeks after beginning my life as a Golden Gopher (University of Minnesota), Lee Munnich and I flew to a July TRB conference in Boston. I scribed the minutes for the then TRB Congestion Pricing Subcommittee. I met Angela Jacobs, David Ungemah, Ken Buckeye, Mark Burris, and Ed Regan – suddenly I knew people in tolling, and my second career was launched.
I picked up the moving truck, still in my graduation robes and returned west, following Patty Rubstello to WSDOT.
2. Tell us about Washington State DOT's toll road assets and any new / recent developments.
Modern day tolling began in Washington in 2007 with the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. In 2008, WSDOT opened our first High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes as the recession hit, which required us to find creative ways to cut costs and generate revenue. Funded by the Urban Partnership Agreement, we tolled an existing asset in 2011: the world’s longest floating bridge on SR 520. Armed with lessons learned, we opened Express Toll Lanes on I-405 in 2015. Just last year, we tolled the largest deep bore tunnel in the western hemisphere – the SR 99 tunnel underneath downtown Seattle.
The State Legislature has approved new toll roads, which will open in the future, but our biggest project is building a new statewide tolling back office.
3. More specifically, related to the Express Lanes trend, what has WSDOT's experience been with HOT Lanes?
We have significant experience building and operating Express Toll Lanes (ETLs) and HOT lanes. There are two experiences of note: toll rate pricing algorithm and access.
Regarding the toll rate pricing algorithm, we are in the unique position of having built our own. Owning this algorithm has significant advantages. We used the traditional data inputs – General Purpose (GP) lanes and ETL loop occupancy, volumes, and speeds and then added other variables. In the first three years of operation, to refine and improve operations, we tweaked the approach, changed weights of and the actual input parameters over fifty times.
Regarding access, we experimented with completely open physical access between the GP and ETLs. Our customers asked for it, and had a high rate of satisfaction; however, the trade-off was slowed traffic, e.g. due to weaving. Our next version will try to capture the benefits of both open and limited access to the ETLs.
4. Give us a few key impacts to WSDOT's tolling operations that were experienced because of COVID-19?
COVID-19 has impacted traffic volumes significantly. We have seen declines on all roadways, but the most on roadways with nearby free alternatives – parallel routes, such as Interstate-90 as well as the GP lanes adjacent to the ETLs. Express Toll Lanes have seen the largest decline.
5. As someone who has been intimately involved in toll system technology and operations, what are the problem statements we as an industry still need to solve and how are we progressing? How do you see tolling further evolving over the next 5-10 years?
The next big change I see coming (once this pandemic is brought under control) will be an increasing opportunity to select how and when we travel. Technology is lowering the barriers between paying for and evaluating the pros and cons of each mode, route, and cost. Many have dreamed of a singular transportation account that can centralize our transportation options on a dynamic payment platform. This payment platform could help people make the best decisions for them in the moment based on cost and time; but more importantly, it creates a policy platform. Metropolitan areas could make decisions that can further much broader goals – such as social equity. One potential example would be providing toll credits as an incentive for transit riders or carpoolers sharing costs of insurance, fuel, tolls, maintenance more equitably. The crux of this change is having the foresight and cooperation among agencies to build a platform which would enable this. Advancements in technology are lowering the cost of such a platform. Tolling back offices are perfectly positioned to add this functionality. In my opinion, the biggest changes in tolling will not be on the roadway but in the back office with the increasing flexibility of our accounts.