By the middle of next year, Florida’s prepaid SunPass electronic toll device will be accepted throughout a wide swath of the southeastern United States, allowing a driver to travel most toll roads from Texas to South Carolina without ever getting out of their cars or slowing down to toss coins in a box.
“We are really making progress on this,” said Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, executive director and CEO of the Florida Turnpike, during a Tuesday presentation at a meeting of nearly 600 toll-road operators in downtown Miami’s InterContinental Hotel.
Florida already has reciprocal deals with Georgia and North Carolina that allow SunPass to be accepted on their toll roads, while those states’ electronic tolling devices are good here. Testing of transponders is already under way to add South Carolina to the mix, Gutierrez-Scaccetti said, and Texas and Alabama are expected to come on board next year.
Expanding SunPass’ reach will only increase its booming business, she added. Despite pockets of fierce resistance to newer, passive transponders that pay tolls without much fanfare — people “get a little nervous when they get a transponder that makes no noise telling them they’ve paid,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said — 100,000 new SunPasses are sold every month.
“We don’t understand where all the people are coming from,” she said. One possibility: Canada. The SunPass is now on sale at the Thousand Islands Bridge border crossing that connects southeastern Canada to upstate New York.
Florida’s new compatibility agreements with other states are part of a nationwide rush for national compatibility of electronic tolling devices mandated by Congress in a 2012 transportation appropriation. Congress set a deadline of 2016 for what’s known in the industry as “interoperability.”
And although almost nobody thinks the deadline will be met, it was clear at the three-day convention of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association that ended Tuesday that the 35 states and territories that operate toll roads are charging ahead hard.
The most dramatic gains have been for the E-ZPass, a tolling device that is now used in 15 northeastern states and is about to add Kentucky. That’s a giant leap for a system that started out linking seven neighboring bridges and roads in a small region that extended across the borders of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
The decision to go to a common tolling system wasn’t some utopian desire for a universal American culture, said P.J. Wilkins, executive director of the E-ZPass Group, but a simple recognition that some drivers in the area could barely see through all the toll-related stickers and transponders on their windshields.
“You could have a driver ... who needed three of them or four of them or six or seven,” Wilkins said.
The expansion of toll reciprocity has come despite major technological hurdles. Three different tolling systems are in wide use across the country, and making them compatible with one another has been a challenge — especially since they have to be perfectly compatible.
E-ZPass takes in $10 billion in tolls a year, noted Wilkins. “If you lose one-tenth of 1 percent of that, that’s a whole lot of unhappy customers,” he said.
The challenges of compatibility go beyond the transponders and license-plate scanners into bookkeeping and other business practices, which often differ wildly from state to state. “The computer part is the easy side,” said David Machamer, assistant executive director of the Oklahoma turnpike authority. “It’s the business practices” that really complicate the process.
Bridging alien business cultures can be so difficult that Gutierrez-Scaccetti — who worked for the New Jersey Turnpike authority before moving south — unveiled a new T-shirt. INTEROPERABILITY MEANS ALL, Y’ALL, it says on the front. On the back: AND THAT MEANS YOUSE GUYS TOO.