Electronic Toll Collection Gets Easier

Since August 2008, I have made at least one annual road trip from Chicago to New York state. Last week, my wife and I made our last drive to New York to see our daughter graduate from Bard College.

When we got to the New York State Thruway, I pulled into the cash-only lane, only to find that my Illinois I-Pass electronic toll transponder paid my fare. I don’t recall that ever happening. I remember that on the last trip, I pulled out my cash in New York, as I had done in Ohio on our first trips.

On this trip, it was electronic toll collection from end to end, beginning at the Chicago Skyway, to the Indiana Toll Road, across Ohio on its turnpike, and then into New York. (We took the northern route this time and skipped the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which is considering a plan to move to all-electronic toll collection.)

All of those states are now members of E-ZPass Group, an association of 24 toll agencies in 14 states. E-ZPass says it’s “the world leader in toll interoperability, with more than 22 million E-ZPass devices in circulation.” The E-ZPass usage statistics show a nearly 22 percent increase in E-ZPass transactions from 2005 through 2011. E-ZPass is not a universal electronic toll collection system, however.

From a consumer point of view, system interoperability (in this case, the ability to use one system on multiple toll roads) is wonderful because it saves time with faster toll paying and decreased traffic congestion. “E-ZPass has shaved at least seven billion traffic-jammed hours from our collective lives,” writes David Segal in a May 19, 2012, New York Times article. The U.S. General Services Administration, in its electronic tolling portal, adds that the systems also “increase fuel economy and reduce vehicle emissions by reducing the time spent in lines at toll booths.”

As in many areas of epayment, the U.S. may have spawned the technologies first but adopted them later. I recall the first electronic tolling system I came across when driving outside of Toronto, Canada, back in 1998. There is a decent, if uneven, overview article on electronic toll collection, its uses, and history across the world on Wikipedia, which also has an article covering the history of E-ZPass. For information on electronic toll technologies, visit Transcore, one of the world’s largest providers of electronic toll collection and other transportation systems.

There are problems, of course. Segal’s article carries the title “Trouble at the Tollbooth”. It focuses on a $50 E-ZPass fine that a woman received in the mail. She thinks the fine is unfair, and she doesn’t appreciate the company’s tone one bit.

We experienced something similar, though it resulted only in inconvenience. We did not have our I-Pass transponder once while driving the Indiana Toll Road and accidentally got in the wrong lane. Although we were able to pay by debit card in the noncash lane, the instructions on the card reader were vague and required a call to the toll attendant, who had to manually enter my debit card number into her terminal and raise the gate for us.

In addition to interoperable transponder-based systems, multiple and reliable methods of epayment at toll booths will be required to make toll payment even faster and easier.