2016-11-17 / Front Page

New Toll Legislation Could Impact Bridge

By Stephanie Fortino

The Mackinac Bridge Authority may have to install new electronic toll readers on the bridge to comply with a federal mandate that the country have universal toll readers across state lines. Every entity that collects tolls electronically must have equipment for one of a few trans-state tolling systems, or risk the withholding of federal funds.

A law passed in 2012, called MAP-21, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, created a federal requirement for universal, or interoperable, electronic toll collection across state lines.

PJ Wilkins, the executive director of the E-ZPass Group, presented the federal regulations to the Mackinac Bridge Authority Thursday, November 3, in St. Ignace. E-ZPass represents electronic toll collections in the northeastern part of the country. Other regional electronic tolling systems include SunPass in Florida, TxTag in Texas, and FasTrak in California.

A challenge with the national toll interoperability is the “back office” part of the operation, which includes the collecting and processing of transactions and customer account management. Electronic tolling entities like the Mackinac Bridge can join a regional tolling group like E-ZPass, which will provide the “back office,” or can handle the interoperable transactions themselves, Mr. Wilkins said. If tolling entities submit their transaction directly to the National Interoperability hub, which has yet to be established, the national group could charge a 2.5% collection fee on every toll.

Every tolling entity will have to weigh the costs of whether joining a regional agency will be less expensive than paying the 2.5% transaction fee and establishing the back office.

Tolling agencies can keep their current toll collection system and gradually transition to one of the interoperable systems. A transponder affixed to the tollbooths at the Mackinac Bridge will allow drivers with interoperable electronic tags to drive through without having to stop to pay the toll. Only one lane in both directions on the Mackinac Bridge, Mr. Wilkins said, would have to be designated for the nationwide electronic toll collection tags.

Establishing a nationwide interoperable tolling system is complicated and is taking much longer to establish than the law required. The plan is not a smart business decision for tolling agencies, Mr. Wilkins told the MBA, and will cost tolling entities and customers money in the long run. The law was passed, Mr. Wilkins said, because a senator from Florida was annoyed when he couldn’t use his SunPass toll card when he visited family in New England.

“There is no business case” for nationwide interoperability, Mr. Wilkins said, mostly because not many people want to drive across the country and use the same tolling pass.

The federal law requires that all interoperable toll collections system be implemented by the fall of 2017, which Mr. Wilkins said is unlikely, as the commission overseeing the implementation of the federal guidelines is slow to make decisions and meets infrequently.

The federal government will provide $1.5 million for testing the new interoperable system. But the regulations are expected to cost the toll industry $155 million to $350 million to implement.

First, Mr. Wilkins said, toll agencies must decide whether they have to comply with the regulations.

The law only requires the new system on federal highways, or risk losing federal funds for improvement. Even though the Mackinac Bridge is on a state highway and thus receives no federal funding for roads, the federal government could withhold funds from the Michigan Department of Transportation. If that happens, the governor’s office could require the MBA to comply with the law.

The law does not apply to tolling entities that only collect coins or cash.

“Unless the law changes, you still have to comply,” Mr. Wilkins said.

The MBA will also have to decide the budget for complying with the law and the timeline for when the system could be implemented.

Implementing the interoperable system will cost the MBA a significant amount of money, said Chairman William Gnodtke. Enforcing the new system will also be difficult, he said, especially because Michigan doesn’t have front license plates. If people drive through the lane, but don’t have an E-ZPass, how will the MBA be able to track them down?

“I can see why it would be nice to have one [tolling system] that works together,” he said, “but, gosh, this looks like a ready-fire-aim. I just don’t see how it would work for us, but if we’re forced to, I just see tremendous cost.”

Other than the International Bridge in Sault Ste. Marie and the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron, the Mackinac Bridge is the only other public toll collecting facility in the state. This plan for national toll interoperability, Mr. Gnodtke said, makes more sense in other states that have more toll roads.

Electronic toll collection is also more efficient and cost effective, Mr. Wilkins said. A manned toll both could process about 250 drivers an hour versus an E-ZPass lane that could process 2,000 drivers an hour.

“You have to decide, is it the right thing for your customers?” Mr. Wilkins said.

This summer, Mr. Wilkins worked with MBA executive secretary Bob Sweeney to install an E-ZPass tag reader on the Mackinac Bridge. There were about 1,500 E-ZPass drivers traveling across the bridge on any given day in the summer. Most of the tags that crossed the Mackinac Bridge were from the Illinois Toll authority and the Ohio and Pennsylvania turnpikes, which are part of the EZPass system.

E-ZPass, which was established in 1989, is the largest interoperable tolling program in the country. There are more than 33 million toll tags currently in use, and about two million tags are added each year.

Currently, 37 tolling entities in 16 states participate in E-ZPass, although its customers live throughout the country. Most of the customers in Michigan with electronic interoperable toll tags have E-ZPasses. Participating states are located from Maine to Illinois and south to North Carolina.

Mr. Gnodtke tasked Mr. Sweeney and the MBA staff with investigating the electronic tolling further, including how much it would cost to join the E-ZPass system.

“When you’re small like we are,” Mr. Gnodtke said, “we just don’t have the money that a toll facility that brings three million people through on a good weekend has.”

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