The COVID-19 pandemic has affected businesses everywhere. Toll roads are no exception. According to the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, toll facilities saw a significant drop in traffic during the first five months of the COVID-19 pandemic. And this is translating into increased talk of raising tolls and related fees.
As with much of the nation’s economy, many toll facilities are hurting financially. One IBTTA columnist noted that the “decrease in traffic has resulted in millions of dollars in lost toll revenue.” They also noted challenges to collect tolls have increased with a spike in pay-by-plate transactions and increased violations.
How are toll roads responding to the pandemic, reduction in travel, and the corresponding loss of revenue? Many have suspended cash collection of tolls and closed walk-in centers, reducing person-to-person interaction. The elimination of cash payments has the side benefit of reducing toll road operating costs, including personnel.
Second, some toll facilities are raising toll rates. For example, on the Pennsylvania Turnpike there will be a 6% toll increase starting Jan. 3, 2021. In California, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission is studying congestion pricing on Bay Area toll roads. The Indiana Toll Road implemented higher rates in July. Of course, increased pricing is not always a ready solution during a time of reduced demand.
Most toll roads are responding with a move toward All Electronic Tolling (AET). AET works either through radio frequency identification (RFID) transponders, like PrePass Plus, or through toll-by-plate. Under the toll-by-plate system, license plate images are captured by cameras, and the registered vehicle owner receives an invoice. Transponders, by comparison, communicate with overhead readers at highway speeds, with toll charges directly assigned to carrier accounts.
While toll-by-plate is a less costly means for toll collection than staffed toll booths, toll-by-plate transactions cost the toll operator significantly more to administer than do transponder transactions. As alluded to by the IBTTA columnist, there are also much higher rates of uncollectable tolls with toll-by-plate than with transponders because camera images are simply not as accurate as digital transmissions.
Toll facilities are businesses, so they pass on these higher toll-by-plate costs to toll road users who do not have a valid transponder. These costs show up in administrative fees added to toll invoices or through higher, non-discounted toll rates. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, for example, announced there will be a 45% surcharge for processing toll-by-plate transactions for those who do not use valid RFID transponders like PrePass Plus, starting in early 2021.
While toll roads continue to adjust to the pandemic and reduced travel, carriers enrolled in PrePass Plus will already be prepared for the new cashless world of AET while avoiding the hefty surcharges associated with toll-by-plate transactions. The complimentary PrePass INFORM Tolling software allows daily online monitoring of all toll transactions,equipping carriers to bill toll costs in real-time to shippers. And with PrePass Plus, wherever toll discounts are offered, they are passed on to PrePass Plus customers.