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Virginia Begins Taking Payments Via App on Some Toll Roads

For regular toll road drivers, there's the E-ZPass. But for drivers who don't use Virginia's toll roads often, the state has launched a new solution: a smartphone app that should make payment easier.

Cars going through the EZ-pass lanes in a toll.
Drivers in parts of Virginia now have a new option for paying tolls: their smartphones.

A new app allows motorists to use the roads while payment happens automatically in the background. The GoToll app, developed by software company Transurban, is now live across 12 toll roads in northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

“We think it will potentially increase the use of toll roads, because if you have the ability to pay, then you can avoid a violation,” said David Caudill, director of tolling at the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).

Transurban partnered with VDOT to arrange for the operation of the GoToll app, which is geared toward those motorists who do not often drive on toll roads. Regular users of the roads are best served by E-ZPass, an account-based system that places a transponder in the car and counts the vehicle as it drives past an electronic reader. 

“This is a great option for them to just download [the app], put their information in, and just have it ready whenever they need to hop on a toll road. So, it’s really, really geared toward that occasional driver,” said Elisa Bell, director of Mobile Products at Transurban.

Drivers downloading the app to their smartphone complete the process by including their license plate number and payment information. The company collects an 85-cent fee each time the app is used on a participating toll road.

“What we have found is that there is a segment of the population that doesn’t use toll roads very often, but when they want to use them, it’s difficult,” said Caudill.

The toll road captures an image of the license plate, which is sent to the E-ZPass office to be matched with a GoToll user.

“We know that the license plate is associated with the GoToll account, and therefore the money flows from the customer to the GoToll account to us, and we facilitate the money back to the facility,” said Caudill.

“Transurban has always had a great relationship with the Virginia Department of Transportation, and as we all know, VDOT is really committed to innovation in transportation,” said Bell. “And they’re always looking for ways to offer residents here easier access and better access to roads in general.

“I think the key here is that we’re not looking to replace an E-ZPass,” she added.  “It’s simply another option.”

Four of the toll roads in Virginia are “dynamically priced” toll roads, which means their rates fluctuate depending on the time of day and traffic flow. The app is structured to support dynamically priced toll roads.

With the number of cities considering congestion pricing on the rise, Bell anticipates a possible future application for GoToll.

“I think this is something we would definitely start looking into,” she added.

GoToll is powered, in part, by location technology created by Bluedot, allowing the app to distinguish travel direction and which lane a motorist is using. The GoToll app is not unlike the wealth of other apps that collect location data, and can then make that data available to third parties such as digital marketing or other operations.

Transurban may provide app users’ personal information to third-party advertisers, or use personal information for “direct marketing or research,” according to the company’s terms and conditions statement. However, company officials have said user data is only collected when the app is open, and they have no current plans to monetize user data.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.