Fast Lane

Agencies expand use of the electronic toll collection and explore new connections.

by / September 2, 2004
Much of the buzz surrounding radio frequency identification (RFID) concerns supply chain management. However, another facet of RFID -- electronic toll collection -- has been in large-scale use for more than a decade. Now it's evolving into the next generation of systems proliferating in both usual and unexpected places.

Have a toll road nearby? Chances are there's an RFID transponder in your vehicle that allows you to pay the toll automatically when passing through the toll plazas at high speed.

Public-sector agencies operating toll roads use this tag technology to lower capital and operating costs, and reduce road congestion caused by cash payers. State and local governments from California to the Northeastern United States already have, or are beginning to implement, RFID-based toll collection systems.

In May 2004, the Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) in Houston, Texas, opened a new road -- the Westpark Tollway -- that relies exclusively on electronic toll collection, freeing it from the administrative burden of cash and coin collection. It's the first cashless toll road in the United States.

The HCTRA operates nearly 100 miles of toll roads, processing nearly 1 million transactions per day -- 65 percent of which are electronic.

Electronic toll collection on this scale requires a high-availability transaction processing system. Here, data processing starts on the road itself.

Electronic Transaction Consultants (ETC), a provider of lane and back-office systems for the HCTRA's toll operations, implemented the technically complex solutions that provide the multilane, highway-speed, nonstop toll collection required by the Westpark Tollway.

Sometimes referred to as "open road tolling," this collection method benefits drivers because there's no need to stop and pay tolls. It is also the most cost-effective collection method for the toll authority because no toll collectors or cash machines are necessary.

"Open road tolling is the norm for many toll roads in the planning stages today," said Tim Gallagher, founder and managing director of ETC. "RFID technology makes it possible to meet the challenges -- and gain the benefits -- of providing reliable toll collection capabilities in these dynamic, high-speed traffic conditions."

Getting the Data
Data is acquired when the automatic vehicle identification (AVI) system reads the transponder.

When a vehicle enters the lane, the entry loop sensor activates the AVI system. The transponder is read as it travels beneath the AVI antenna before the vehicle exits the entry loop. As the car continues through the toll gables, the tag reader checks with a local database to see if the account is valid.

If so, the transaction data is cached and sent to the back office, and the transaction processing begins. If not, drivers can expect a bill with their car's picture on it.

To prevent such violations, sophisticated cameras capture license plate images of more than 30,000 tagless violators per day in Houston. When the system doesn't recognize someone passing though the toll booth as a current account holder, the vehicle activates the cameras as the automobile crosses the enforcement system trigger loop. Once the picture of the car's license plate goes through an optical character recognition process, it is matched against a Texas Department of Motor Vehicles database that gives the operating authority the vehicle owner's name and address. Before using this information to send a bill, many organizations add a penalty amount, which helps recoup the cost of extra work while also dissuading the owner from repeating this deed in the future.

This is essentially a pay-by-the-plate method of billing, and depending on an entity's outlook, can allow customers without RFID-based tags to pay for tolls or other items. Some international operators -- including those running Toronto's largest toll road, Highway 407 -- use this method, realizing that not all traffic on their roads is local and out-of-province users may not have a transponder or an account.

Interoperability Across America
Toll road customers dream of using the same transponder at any toll road in America. In addition to the added convenience of using the same tag while traveling through different states, many customers see value in getting one bill for all of their transponder-based purchases. However, the transponders are proprietary. Tags made by one manufacturer cannot be read by another manufacturer's reader.

Currently TransCore, Mark IV and SIRIT are major tag producers.

In Texas, customers of one city's toll road are customers of all toll roads, as every operator uses tags from TransCore. Drivers in Houston and Dallas can use one tag for toll roads in either city. When Austin's first toll roads open in 2005, and San Antonio's follow afterward, the tags will also be interoperable there.

In the Northeastern United States, travelers in New York, Delaware, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and soon Illinois can use Mark IV's tag under a program branded "EZ Pass" to travel on each other's toll roads. Out west, California and Colorado toll road operating authorities are SIRIT customers.

For interoperability to be a reality, toll collection systems of various toll road authorities must exchange data in an agreed-upon format. Each must exchange a list of valid tags and agree to collect, submit and receive toll transactions according to predefined formats and business rules.

Real-World Interoperability
Customers at the Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) Airport can also pay parking with the same tag used on Dallas-area toll roads. This convenience results from an agreement between the DFW International Airport Board and the North Texas Tollway Authority. The two major Houston airports are following suit, as HCTRA and the Houston Airport System (HAS) are working together on a similar project.

The HAS plans to control its ground transportation traffic with the tag as well. The location of taxis, shuttles and limousines can be monitored via a tag passing through readers, allowing the ground transportation crew to reroute vehicles or send them back to staging areas until their presence at the terminal is requested. This should help reduce pileup and confusion in the critical passenger pickup and drop-off areas.

TransCore, manufacturer of tags used in Texas, is working toward creating a mobile commerce community in the Dallas/Plano area. Customers with tags will pay-by-tag at merchants with drive-through lanes where long lines can slow customers down. Potential members of such a community include fast-food restaurants, dry cleaners, pharmacies and car washes.

Although in its infancy, merchants could benefit from mobile commerce in several ways. With use of credit, the average ticket size increases, as the customer's ability to purchase is not limited to the amount of cash on hand. Also, merchants can customize the customer experience by keeping a data history, thus remembering customer preferences. To an extent, customer choice is determined by their payment preferences.

If customers speed up the line while using their toll tag to pay, it may increase customer loyalty. This loyalty increases moreover when mobile commerce community members cross-promote each other, offering coupons with short-term expiration dates for fellow community members, stimulating more frequent visits.

Select fast-food restaurants in Dallas are part of this experimental community, using the tags to reduce waiting time in their drive-through lines. At five Dallas-area McDonald's restaurants, customers with the toll-road transponders can use the tag in the drive-through to place an order. Once the order is placed, they drive past the pay window, and pick up their order and receipt at the second window.

"A large portion of our business is from the drive-through," said Jonathan Kelley, president of operations for Baibrook Partners, the McDonald's franchisee hosting the five store pay-by-tag initiative in Dallas. "This system speeds throughput, increases productivity, enhances our guests' convenience, and average ticket sales are up 38 percent with those who use the cashless system."

The Next Generation
Local government entities are challenged to ensure people and goods move safely and efficiently through their regional transportation infrastructure, which relies heavily on information systems to help keep up with increasing traffic counts.

As some early legacy systems reach the end of their life cycle and as new roads are built, more sophisticated electronic toll collection systems are being implemented. Roads such as the HCTRA's Westpark Tollway are being designed around the capability these systems provide.

A consortium composed of tag manufacturers and others from the toll industry aims to help transportation agencies use technologies to better manage their existing transportation infrastructure. Together, they work to take today's electronic toll collection systems from the 915 MHz band, with a reading range of 10 feet to 300 feet at about 500 Kbps to a much stronger system able to read 10 feet to 3,000 feet with a data rate of 6 Mbps to 27 Mbps at the 5.9 GHz band.

Automobile manufacturers plan to install the new technology in vehicles later in the decade, which will allow vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-roadside wireless communications to go well beyond electronic toll collection. It's hoped this effort will reduce traffic congestion, provide traffic data to the public and those managing fleets, and increase public safety by decreasing response times in emergency situations.
Fred Philipson Contributing Writer