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Interoperability: towards the new frontier

First publishedin ITS International
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Regional hubs can harmonise their business rules and back office systems

After six years of intensive research, testing and negotiation, the US tolling industry is well on its way to groundbreaking results in the effort to establish regional - and eventually national - toll interoperability, says IBTTA’s Bill Cramer

Interoperability has been a high priority on the US tolling industry’s agenda for more than a decade. But several factors made it a uniquely complex issue to resolve - including the number of agencies involved, the significant investments those agencies had already made in different toll collection protocols, and the high public and financial stakes attached to getting any new system right from the moment it rolled out.

By all accounts, one of the biggest breakthroughs on the path to toll interoperability was the realisation that it would be sufficient for agencies and, eventually, regional hubs to harmonise their business rules and back office systems - as opposed to the technologies and protocols on which those systems depended.

But agencies and vendors would never have reached that point without the ability to meet together over a period of months and years, compare their experiences to date with electronic toll collection, lay out the needs and expectations they would bring to an interoperable tolling system, and gradually find common ground. The role of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA) as enabler and facilitator is now receiving accolades from all sides of the US industry.

Pivotal role

“IBTTA was pivotal in bringing a collegial approach to this very complex problem, and in developing technical and process solutions to achieve the mandated goal,” says Samuel Johnson, chief operating officer at California’s Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA), and IBTTA’s second vice president. As the focus of the conversation gradually shifted from developing a single, nationwide tag-based system to regional hubs, “the technical specifications, business rules, testing, and governance model developed through IBTTA’s effort all served together to create the foundation” that made it possible for the regional model to grow and flourish.

IBTTA served as the incubator for the conceptual planning of national toll interoperability in 2010 and used that early foundational work to establish a national committee led by toll agencies and industry businesses, agrees Dave Kristick, deputy executive director of Colorado’s E-470 Public Highway Authority and chair of IBTTA’s Interoperability Steering Committee. “As that co-operative effort began, so did the evolution of the regional interoperability hubs, led by the central and south-east hubs, which eventually outdistanced toll protocol testing.”

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Blue yonder: protocols, equipment and requirements vary between each toll operator

E-ZPass Group executive director PJ Wilkins said the most important contribution IBTTA made – “and one they’re very good at, was to provide a forum for people to get together from the various regions” and “navigate the issue in a way that kept the toll industry in the driver’s seat as far as the timing and methodology for where we wanted to go”. IBTTA also kept stakeholders outside the industry informed, including US federal agencies that were interested in seeing an interoperable system take shape, while “enabling this plan that regional people had put together that was an acceptable and smart way to achieve the objective”.

Granular details

IBTTA government affairs director Neil Gray recalls a development process that started out with high ideals and quickly, necessarily drilled down to the most arcane and granular details - any one of which could have held the work back if it wasn’t thoroughly addressed.

“We forged the space for agencies and vendors to thrash this out, and that was complicated,” he says. “We had to come up with the technical specifications, the technical requirements document, and the business rules document. We got into all the technical minutiae, at the level of what are your data fields, and how many digits are available to provide data. It is a master cookbook for anyone who wanted to create a device that would accommodate the data needs of any known North American tolling agency.”

Ultimately, that thinking led into what Gray calls a ‘master list’ of all the steps that every North American agency currently takes to get paid for a tolled transaction. “[The result is that] as a toll operator you can look at your operations, see how yours match up with theirs, and figure out how to do business with them,” he explains. “And that’s what enabled the agencies to organise these regional hubs amongst themselves. It’s not that they could never have arrived at it, but the aggregated technical specifications and business rules are a definite product and outcome of the effort that we managed.”

The big victory in the emerging North American approach to interoperability is the way it creates a single, uniform system that accommodates a dizzying degree of diversity.

“We’ve developed an incredible technical support structure for how the business is actually done across the US,” says Andrew Fremier, deputy executive director, operations at California’s Bay Area Toll Authority. “At a minimum, the most important element was putting together a library of what’s going on in the industry.”

But the takeaway from that work is that you’re better off trying to solve it in the business rule environment, he adds. “The protocols and the equipment and the requirements that are in place are very individual to each of the toll operators. The decisions you make in that environment affect the bottom line dramatically. So it took some time for that difficult family conversation to take place, to really understand what was important to all the different partners and participants.”

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The complicated aspect of interoperability is still how to do business across a legal boundary

Delivering results

The final result of North America’s journey to toll interoperability may not be precisely what participants envisioned when discussions first got under way. But it’s delivering results that will work for customers and make sense for tolling agencies - and an epically long process is getting close to delivering results.

  • Participating US states have organised themselves into four regional interoperability hubs in the west, the central region, the north-east, and the south-east.

  • The E-ZPass Group is still the biggest centre of interoperability, with 17 north-eastern states reporting and sharing 3.5 billion toll transactions per year.

  • The states of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas are already mutually interoperable, as are Florida, Georgia and North Carolina.

  • The Florida and Texas hubs will soon be fully capable of sharing transaction data, meaning that a third of the country will become interoperable.

  • California, Oregon, Washington State, Utah and Nevada are working through a single hub managed by the Transportation Corridor Agencies, and TCA has done the technical and legal work to connect the western hub with Colorado. Implementation could come within the next year or two.

  • At least two eastern Canadian provinces are interested in connecting with the E-ZPass states - and with Florida, given the large proportion of ‘snowbirds’ from the more northerly country who take long-term vacations in the southernmost state every winter.

Gray compares the development of interoperability in North America with the state of play in Europe, a continent with few interoperable toll systems that cross national boundaries. “If you view the US as 50 jurisdictions, appreciating the difference between a national and a state border, the complicated aspect is still how we do business across that legal boundary,” he says. “How do I pay you? How do you pay me? The technology is hard enough. But the business rules? That’s the hard part.”

Tim Stewart, IBTTA president and executive director of E-470 Public Highway Authority in Aurora, Colorado, concluded: “It has taken mutual trust and accountability to make interoperability a reality, but customers are about to see the benefit in a way that reinforces their own confidence in the industry’s commitment to deliver safe, reliable mobility.”

Companies in this article

Transportation Corridor Agencies
Bay Area Toll Authority
E-ZPass Group

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