In my previous column I mused on the Mileage Based User Fee approach to transportation funding and how the nascent field was focusing its attention on proving the concept with the simplest architecture, rather than planning for a more integrated payment system, as would be the case with Mobility as a Service (MaaS). Though I see this as a failure of vision, it is not irreparable because ultimately, any amount of miles driven can be charged. The broader question is: how does transportation payment interoperability get built?
It was not long ago that all transportation systems (tolling, transit, parking) were interoperable. All they took was cash, which was good anywhere within a country.
Then agencies started to print their own tokens, fare cards, etc., which were not interoperable with any other system. In the broader economy, payment mechanisms such as credit cards achieved interoperability, but in the post-iPhone period (the iPhone didn’t come along until 2007), new payment methods became more popular – like PayPal, LevelUp and PayByPhone – which were once again, incompatible systems.
Interoperability in society has had a complicated history, but among public agencies, is much simpler. The process became more simplified when E-ZPass began a toll collection scheme in the northeast USA. The two key elements were an account-based system to identify and communicate with each customer, and the ability of that account to use multiple facilities. Voilà! – interoperability.
Over the past several decades the toll industry has seen interoperability emerge in at least four areas in the USA: the Northeast, Florida, Texas and California. The systems can’t operate across regions: the hardware is different, the business rules are different and there is no national clearinghouse. Negotiations are all bilateral in nature. There has been an effort to achieve national interoperability, which was spurred by elements of the last surface transportation bill.
Credit needs to be given to the International Bridge Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA) for leading the efforts for national toll interoperability, but the obstacles are massive and optimistically we, in the USA, are still several years from any real national interoperability.
What does all this tell us about the challenges that lie ahead when it comes to achieving the MaaS future that is so essential if we are to manage the transportation network?
The first thing is that it’s really hard and even a big stick from the federal government does not guarantee rapid success. The second is that the for profit economy figured out what sacrifices to make so that their businesses would succeed. But the third lesson is most important and we saw it at the beginning of the E-ZPass. It’s a lot easier to build interoperability in from the start than graft it on later. Now is the time to start speaking across our silos about what a common payment system will look like.