In almost any discussion about the tolling industry, one question persists: with advances in technology, what does the future of tolling look like? This topic is the subject of endless debates among experts.
Throughout the history of toll roads around the world, the model has remained largely unchanged. Whenever a transportation agency identifies the need for a large infrastructure project, be it a controlled-access highway, bridge or tunnel, and traditional funding sources are not enough, governments will often turn to user fees (tolling) to deliver the project in a timely manner. In most cases bonds are secured by future toll revenues and are issued to support construction of the project and once the facility is opened to traffic, tolls are collected to repay the debt. The model is pretty straightforward, and it works. But for all the benefits of tolling such as accelerating project delivery, introducing a true user-based fee, and providing a sustainable source of revenue for road maintenance, due to constraints, like the cost of collecting a toll, this model has been mostly limited to major urban areas with large infrastructure projects.
As states and municipalities grapple with the reality that traditional funding sources, such as the ‘gas tax’ are dwindling, they are increasingly looking towards alternative methods to fund much needed and overdue infrastructure repair and upgrades. Some alternatives include concepts like road user charging, sometimes referred to as vehicle miles travelled, and congestion pricing, as we are seeing in some larger cities like London, Stockholm, and soon, New York City. Although, for alternatives such as these to be successful, there must be technology in place to capture user information and systems capable of managing large numbers of accounts, while processing large amounts of data, seamlessly. If this sounds familiar, it is. The toll technology revolution that began several decades ago with the introduction of electronic toll collection has positioned the tolling industry to be at the forefront of the impending revolution on how infrastructure is funded into the future on a much broader scale.
I am not saying that tolling, in the more traditional sense, is going away any time soon. In fact, I believe the opposite is true. As the cost of tolling continues to decrease, I think more states and municipalities will look to leverage tolling as a means to deliver critical infrastructure projects, and even continue to expand its use as a means of congestion management, but I do believe the industry is standing at a precipice. There is a tremendous opportunity right now to be the leader in the discussion on finding a sustainable solution to fund ongoing infrastructure needs, both at the federal and state levels. But the industry must be open to change, to expanding its vision; to partnering with new industries and emerging technology leaders. If not, someone else will ultimately fill the void and today’s industry will be relegated to the sidelines. What’s that saying? Lead, follow, or get out of the way. Join me, because now is the time to lead.
J.J. Eden is executive director of the North Carolina Turnpike and is a columnist for Traffic Technology International