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Tolling agencies build resilience into highway operations

First publishedin ITS International
2013 July August
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flooded road
Severe weather events are becoming more common

IBTTA executive director and CEO Patrick D. Jones looks at tolling’s resilience in an increasingly unpredictable and cash-strapped world.

Turbulent times call for transportation agencies to move smarter. That’s why resilience and preparedness have become watchwords in every aspect of tollway operations.

From having the financial resources to invest in construction, maintenance and roadway operations, to having up-to-date emergency plans and social media strategies to cope with severe weather, tolling agencies have embraced the need to expect the unexpected. That’s because transportation infrastructure stands at the junction of so many complex, largely unpredictable challenges such as larger and more frequent severe weather events and protecting a highway, bridge or tunnel is more complex than simply moving to higher ground.

Globally there is a lot of ground to be made up. In the United States alone the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that an additional US$846 billion will have to be spent by 2020 to bring the surface transportation infrastructure up to grade B from the present C+ (for bridges) and D for roads.

The development and rollout of state-of-the-art technologies has been a good news story for the transportation sector. But complex systems can also be more brittle and prone to failure. That’s one of many reasons the American tolling industry is working hard to achieve nationwide interoperability of electronic toll collection systems.

Globally, tolling agencies have one significant advantage in responding to these and other front-line issues as they are financed by users. They can invest proactively and preventively to deliver safe, reliable mobility for customers, setting a service standard that every user should want to see on the roads they drive.

Resilient Operations

In October 2012 Hurricane Sandy gave transportation operators one of their biggest challenges as it devastated a swath of the northeastern United States from Connecticut to New Jersey. In January 2013 the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA) convened a forum on adaptation and resilience to capture lessons learned from severe storms in New York, New Jersey and Florida.

According to Rob Horr, IBTTA president and executive director of the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority, “This was a game-changer for all of us who operate infrastructure.” James Fortunato, vice-president and chief of operations for New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority Bridges and Tunnels (MTA) goes further saying: “What unfolded with Sandy was something we’d never seen before in our careers, and maybe in two or three generations.”

Forum participants cited emergency procedures and systems as the cornerstone of an effective response to weather disasters, with tolling executives from Florida drawing on their experience of multiple severe storms. Emerging practices for future storms includes:

•     Establishing an integrated emergency operations centre
•     Identifying in advance backup locations and systems to speed business recovery when a key facility is lost
•     Stationing engineering teams to assess damage as soon as a storm has passed
•     Identifying essential personnel and laying out pathways for them to do their jobs
•     Anticipating the need for key operational information, like mobile PIN numbers and basic equipment like phone chargers and flashlights.
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Snow plough on E470
Snow plough on E470
The same practices apply for tolling agencies around the world and for a range of extraordinary conditions beyond weather emergencies. From severe snowstorms in Europe, to a tunnel collapse in Japan, to a truckload of butter on fire at a rest stop along the Kansas Turnpike, toll operators have to expect the unexpected and deliver a superior level of emergency response.

Increasingly, that response relies on social media. During the Sandy Forum, tolling agency executives from New York and New Jersey described the websites, email systems, mobile apps, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts they used to distribute up-to-date information on road safety and closures. In past storms in Florida, social media emerged as a useful channel to reach commercial and mainstream media, particularly after email systems failed.

All of which is of paramount importance when transportation agencies are scrambling to serve customers in times of crisis, support recovery efforts and speed critical infrastructure back into service. At IBTTA’s forthcoming Annual Meeting and Exhibition (22-25 September, Vancouver, Canada) participants will hear about the variety of severe weather challenges facing toll facilities. Members from across Europe, Asia and South America will host exhibits to present the vast array of approaches they use to keep customers safe during extraordinary weather events.

Resilient Technologies

Technological innovation - much of it originating in other industries - continues to revolutionise tolling and the wider transportation sector. All-electronic tolling (AET) has made tolling much more efficient, allowing users to pass under a gantry to pay their toll at highway speed rather than slowing down or waiting in line at a collection booth.

The added flexibility of AET has also set the stage for highway financing innovations like managed lanes but with such technology comes added complexity. Having adopted AET systems that use a variety of different technologies, tolling agencies in both North America and Europe are striving to achieve full interoperability to eliminate the need for multiple toll tags when customers are travelling between jurisdictions.

In 2009, the European Union introduced the European Electronic Toll Service (EETS), with the intention of allowing drivers to travel across the continent with one subscription contract, one service provider and one onboard unit by October 2014.

The 2012 transportation reauthorisation bill, MAP-21, set a 2016 deadline for America to achieve full interoperability and IBTTA’s Interoperability Committee is working to coordinate and harmonise the technical standards and business rules that support different electronic toll collection (ETC) systems.

In its March 2013 update, the committee stated that the goal of nationwide ETC interoperability is a system in which customers are able to pay tolls on any participating toll facility in the country using a single account. It said efforts to establish national interoperability must address the technologies and systems already in use and the capital invested on these systems. It has to also consider the institutional and business agreements that must exist among toll operators to recognise a customer and process a transaction to that customer’s account.
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Toll plaza flooded during Hurricane Sandy
Toll plaza flooded during Hurricane Sandy
Highway operations worldwide are in a constant state of evolution, driven by video, digital, RFID, internet and social media technologies that were not developed with transportation in mind. When Google’s head of media outreach, Daniel Sieberg, appears at the Vancouver meeting, he’ll join a wide-ranging conversation on the ideas and concepts from outside tolling and transportation that can help the industry solve some of its toughest challenges.

Financing Resilient Transportation

Canadian demographer David Foot observed many years ago that, beyond a certain point “you don’t do more with less. You do less with less.” That’s the biggest tragedy, and the most serious hidden cost, in a transportation funding crisis that extends around the world. With a stable, long-term base of user-generated funding, tolling agencies are the exception that prove the rule. Their experience shows other kinds of resilience are made possible when an organisation is financially strong, just as it is largely prevented when funding is in short supply.

Agencies like the Illinois Tollway know that users will willingly accept major toll increases when they see the money they pay supporting safe, efficient operations on the roads they drive. And Oregon scored a major victory when legislators adopted the first road user charging system in the United States (see page 38).

But when adequate funding isn’t available, highway users face the everyday hazards that result from a chronic lack of resources. This is a problem that can and should be solved by recognising tolling and other forms of user finance as an essential tool in transportation funding. Whether a particular challenge is financial, technological or logistical, it is a serious error to assume that everything (or anything) will go according to plan. Particularly in a complex system, real resilience is about being prepared when - not if - circumstances begin to spin out of control. And preparedness depends on the skills, training, technology and financial capacity to assess a situation, then plan and execute the appropriate response.

Emergency preparedness is often treated as a luxury until it is suddenly a life-saving necessity. That’s when successful execution of an emergency plan depends on the organisational capacity of a tolling agency in Florida, New Jersey or New York, backed by budgets that are unlikely to be available without some form of user financing.

So as the transportation funding crisis deepens and weather disasters increase in severity and frequency, public safety and security might become one of the most compelling reasons to rely more heavily on tolling as a proven way to finance the mobility we need.

Companies in this article

American Society of Civil Engineers
European Union

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