USA Banner

Official US Government Icon

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure Site Icon

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - May/June 2005

May/June 2005
Issue No:
Vol. 68 No. 6
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

The End of The Tollbooth?

by Evelio Suarez and Kevin Hoeflich

Florida is testing a prototype installation of open-road tolling technology for future deployment.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation's 2003 Transportation Statistics Annual Report, it takes "39 percent longer, on average, to make a peak period trip in urban areas compared with the time it would take if traffic were flowing freely." For example, a commute that should take 30 minutes actually takes 42 minutes.

Traffic congestion is not just an urban issue. As smaller communities and suburbs grow, travelers in those areas are "feeling the pain" as well. User demand simply exceeds the supply of roads in many areas across the country.

It takes just 16 milliseconds for these cameras, computer equipment, and electronic radio antennas to read and write to SunPass® transponders as vehicles travel at highway speeds under the Oakland Park Boulevard Bridge near Fort Lauderdale. This open-road tolling demonstration site is the precursor to larger open-road tolling installations being studied for implementation in Florida.

Even though the Nation has spent billions in transportation improvements over the past decade, resources and funding remain limited. The Nation simply cannot build its way out of traffic congestion.

Solutions are available, however, that transportation managers can employ to improve operations on existing roadways to obtain the most capacity out of the existing infrastructure. These solutions include, for instance, signal timing improvements, construction during nonpeak hours and weekends, road design enhancements, improved signage, and removal of manmade obstacles that slow or even stop the flow of traffic.

Sometimes tollbooths are used as ramp metering devices to improve downstream traffic flows. But tollbooths may obstruct traffic flow, particularly cash-only tollbooths where money is collected vehicle by vehicle, sometimes causing idling and backups on toll and feeder roads. Idling not only causes driver frustration but also decreases national productivity and contributes to degraded air quality.

Transportation agencies that collect tolls for use of infrastructure are trying to leverage new technology to remove traffic congestion from their roadways. Open-road electronic toll collection or open-road tolling (ORT) is gaining popularity as a possible means to increase throughput and funding at the same time. But as with any launch of a new product or service, this concept will depend on acceptance by users.

Open-Road Tolling

At first glance, it may not look like much—an array of electronic components, transponders, and readers and cameras attached to steel bars hanging under a highway bridge over Florida's Turnpike just north of Fort Lauderdale. In January 2004, technicians established a gantry site on the turnpike's Oakland Park Boulevard Bridge for demonstrating electronic toll collection equipment. The manufacturer will use the site for testing and fine-tuning the technology for the future deployment of ORT, or cashless, highway-speed electronic toll collection.

Just 16 kilometers (10 miles) away is the immediate, primary target for the Florida Turnpike's ORT deployment, the Sawgrass Expressway. This 37-kilometer (23-mile) four- and six-lane connector is on the northwest outskirts of metropolitan Fort Lauderdale. Florida's Turnpike Enterprise, the tolling agency, already has begun implementing plans to turn this congested stretch of commuter highway into a prototype highway of the future. The Sawgrass Expressway will be a user-financed toll road that delivers maximum potential in customer service through technologies such as ORT, traffic management strategies, widened roadways and ramps, the addition of aesthetically pleasing environmental treatments, and state- of-the-art intelligent transportation system (ITS) functions.

SunPass-only lanes enable travelers to pass through tollbooths slowly without stopping to pay cash. Should openroad tolling be implemented, tolls will be collected from vehicles traveling at full highway speeds.

A New Revenue Source

The Oakland Park Boulevard demonstration site and the Sawgrass Expressway ORT prototype represent a few visible elements of Florida Turnpike's vision. Since the conversion of Florida's Turnpike Enterprise in 2002 to a stand-alone operating unit of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), the toll road agency has begun pursuing a vision of the future in which private sector business principles provide the means to fulfilling public sector goals.

"Our primary goal is to meet the ongoing highway transportation needs for what has been, and will likely continue to be, one of the fastest growing States in the country," says James L. Ely, Ph.D., D.P.A., executive director and chief executive officer of Florida's Turnpike Enterprise. "The principle guiding this new mission is our belief that, to the greatest extent possible, roadways should be user-financed."
This belief underlies a commitment to toll-based highway management throughout the State, where half a dozen major tolling agencies, whose total revenues are expected to exceed $1 billion in 2007, have been responsible for building two-thirds of all new lane miles and all limited access highways during the past 15 years.

According to Reinventing Florida's Turnpike: The Enterprise Model, a publication of Florida's Turnpike Enterprise, the tolling agency's business plan calls for reliance primarily on annual toll revenues for operating income and debt retirement. Projected revenues will act as security in the issuance of public-finance bonds for interim funding of required capital expansion projects.

"Seemingly Unbridgeable Gap" in Highway Funding

At the onset of the 21st century, two opposing trends for highway transportation became clear. First, State and Federal gasoline taxes and Federal surface transportation allocations appear to have reached a hiatus. Second, demand for expansion of the current highway system—both to relieve congestion in densely populated areas and to meet transportation demands in newly populated and rapidly growing areas—continues to increase at a significantly rapid rate with no signs of slowing.

In Surface Transportation: Confronting the Backlog, William Streeter, Cherian George, and Scott Trommer describe the present state of affairs as a "seemingly unbridgeable gap in surface transportation funding needs."

In response to this apparent inability of the current gas-tax-based system to keep up with growing demand, proponents believe that user-based funding in the form of toll or indirect user charges may be a solution. Proponents also believe that widespread implementation of ORT technology has the potential to promote wider acceptance of toll-based funding for highway building.

Addressing Privacy

Recognized as the grandfather of open tolling, Ontario's electronic-only tolling system was successfully implemented, with the first day of tolling begun on October 14, 1997. The system was implemented on the 407 Express Toll Route (ETR), which runs east-west just north of Toronto. More than 530 million trips have been taken between October 1997 and June 2004.

Toll calculations include time of day, day of the week, distance traveled, and class/weight of vehicle and are collected using electronic intelligent transportation system technology. The 407 ETR charges users through a transponder that is attached to an automobile's windshield. Transponders are mandatory for heavy vehicles with a gross weight over 5,000 kilograms (11,010 pounds). The tolling system automatically deducts the toll from the transponder or uses an electronic system to capture a license plate number for users without transponders. From there, optical character recognition (OCR) software is used to identify the plate numbers for billing the toll at a higher rate.

According to the Information and Privacy Commissioner/Ontario (IPC) report 407 Express Toll Route: How You Can Travel the 407 Anonymously, the 407 ETR system set up three safeguards to overcome possible privacy issues: (1) A vehicle's rear plate is photographed only when a transponder is not on the windshield, (2) Legislation mandates that any personal information collected on an individual can be used only for toll collection and traffic management, and (3) Customers have the option of setting up an anonymous transponder account, which does not require them to provide any identification whatsoever. The IPC describes anonymous accounts in the following way:

All financial transactions are done via cash to ensure true anonymity. During the registration process, no personal information is required—an account is opened and a security deposit is prepaid by cash. (A form of security deposit is required from everyone obtaining a transponder.) When the IPC first presented the anonymous option, the OTCC's [Ontario Transportation Capital Corporation] proposal required anonymous account clients to visit the OTCC Operations Centre to replenish their account, whereas regular transponder account clients could pay through a variety of means. Since it was important that the anonymous transponder option be as convenient to use as the regular transponder option, this solution was not acceptable to the IPC. The OTCC then explored the idea of having anonymous transponder clients replenish their account[s] at any chartered bank or trust company, without providing any identification. Through extensive discussions with the financial community, the OTCC was successful in achieving this objective.

The method of payment developed for anonymous accounts is unique: [T]he user's OTCC account (not a bank account but just like one, for an account holder's purposes) is credited with funds for future trips on the 407 ETR—in effect, a prepaid cash account. This is accomplished by using a preprinted payment booklet. When an anonymous account is first opened and a transponder issued, the individual is also provided with a booklet of payment slips that are preprinted with the anonymous account number. When it comes time to replenish their account (learned through the transponder which signals the driver by a flashing yellow light and one beep), one simply visits any chartered bank or trust company and deposits funds into the account number that appears on the payment slip. The clerk at the financial institution marks the payment slip with the amount of money paid and then electronically transfers the funds to the OTCC account. The bank or trust company acts as a convenient intermediary, accepting deposits into anonymous accounts on behalf of the OTCC. Payment can also be made by mail or in person at the 407 ETR Operations Centre where a similar electronic transfer of funds will occur.

If they wish to remain anonymous, anonymous transponder users cannot let their account balances fall to zero (transponder signals this by a red light and one beep). If they do, a record of the trip and any others will be made using the rear [license] plate recognition and identification system and a bill will be mailed to the registered [license] plate holder. Thus, anonymity is forfeited if accounts are not replenished. However, patrons are given sufficient warning so as to allow enough time to replenish their anonymous accounts.

For more information, see the IPC report 407 Express Toll Route:
How You Can Travel the 407 Anonymously at

Robert Rupert
Team Leader
Transportation Information Management
FHWA Office of Operations

Conversion to ORT an Evolutionary Process

In pursuit of systemwide deployment of ORT, Florida's Turnpike Enterprise was helped by a 2001 report, The Feasibility of Open-Road Tolling in Florida, a study conducted by the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida and sponsored by FDOT, the Florida Turnpike Authority, the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority, and the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority.

The study examined the potential implications of statewide ORT conversion, especially as it might affect the areas of customer service and marketing; collections and operations; traffic and revenue; and engineering, organizational, and legal issues. The study's authors examined obstacles to statewide ORT deployment and found the following:

"An overwhelming majority of current cash paying customers and [nontoll] road users believe that cash should always be an option on toll facilities. Almost as many indicated a willingness to subscribe to an electronic toll collection program if discounts were offered or if it meant not having to stop to pay a toll.

"Of all of the issues addressed throughout the course of the study, none was more debated and discussed than that of the wisdom and appropriateness of eliminating the ability of customers to pay cash in a traditional toll lane. What is clearly apparent is that in order to move to more automated and high-speed toll collection, actions and programs to increase the use of electronic transponders must continue to be pursued."

The report also indicated that there were significant issues raised in the analysis of operations and collections reliability in deploying the ORT, such as "an increased potential for revenue losses due to [uncollectible] invoices, a surcharge to maintain revenue neutrality, and the potential functional obsolescence of the existing AVI [automatic vehicle identification] system." One issue that the study indicated was potential collections from out-of-State users.

Statutory changes also would be needed because of some technical challenges with license plate readability and identification (that is, discerning characters on license plates appropriately might mean the possibility of making plates consistent in character font, size, contrast of color, and reflective materials), payment enforcement, law enforcement vehicle access to real-time driver account status or portable transponder readers, and access to Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) information, both in-State and out-of-State.

The report mentioned other issues such as a lack of standards concerning transponder type, operations, software, and approaches to integrating video. There was also a wide range of quality and performance "among vendors of video and OCR [optical character recognition] technology that appears to be independent of the cost of these components."

The study concluded with the feasibility of a phased-in approach but cautioned that "several of the social and political ramifications present formidable issues" and recommended an evolutionary path starting with acclimating the public to transponder usage and "committing to as many express lanes as feasible as quickly as possible."

"ORT deployment is the final step in an evolutionary process," notes Ely. "This process begins with the promotion of electronic toll availability and usage and continues with conversion of existing electronic toll lanes to open-road electronic toll lanes. Ultimately, we will reach the stage where we're able to completely remove all existing toll plazas."

Protecting the Revenue Stream

Florida's Turnpike Enterprise is replacing its existing enforcement equipment with a state-of-the-art electronic Violation Enforcement System (VES) as one component of a multiphase enforcement improvement project. Capable of processing up to 90,000 violation images per day, the VES interacts with 13 county governments and courts statewide. A specially designed backup system even checks the SunPass accounts of violators who may have transponders but failed to trigger a transaction, automatically debiting the accounts of those in good standing.

Enforcement operations also are being upgraded by deploying random onsite enforcement teams using law enforcement personnel from the Turnpike Enterprises' Florida Highway Patrol Troop and support personnel from the SunPass customer service center.

SunPass Transponders In the Sunshine State

Florida's Turnpike Enterprise realized that it would not be successful in maintaining high standards for customer service and operating efficiency in a State expected to grow 25 percent over the next decade—without significant growth in electronic toll collection (ETC) using SunPass ETC transponders. The Florida's Turnpike Enterprise's concerted program to increase ETC usage, the SunPass Challenge, began earnestly in 2001.

Florida's Turnpike Enterprise is focusing its SunPass Challenge efforts in three areas: streamlined design and construction protocols to add approximately 100 SunPass-only lanes to the system, violation enforcement upgrades (see "Protecting the Revenue Stream, page 66) to safeguard the revenue stream, and marketing techniques to motivate turnpike users to switch to electronic toll collection (see "Making ETC Convenient," page 67). The ultimate goal is to increase the ETC user rate to 75 percent by the end of 2008.

For the next 8 to 10 years, most of Florida's Turnpike Enterprise's tolls will still be collected from SunPass-only and cash lanes. The Florida Turnpike Enterprise believes that ORT represents the next generation of electronic toll collection, in which tolls will be collected via SunPass transponders from vehicles moving at highway speeds (rather than having to slow down to move through a toll plaza).

Making ETC Convenient

Florida Turnpike Enterprise's SunPass Challenge—a concerted program to increase electronic toll collection (ETC) usage—began in earnest in 2001 with three key objectives: establish a unique identity and brand recognition for SunPass, create a "preferred-customer" status for ETC users, and make it more convenient to buy the transponders.

Convenience was the driver behind the decision to explore retail distribution. Regionally based chain drugstores and supermarkets signed on to sell SunPass transponders in the summer and fall of 2003, providing a total of more than 1,100 retail outlets.

ETC participation rate in 2002 was approximately 25 percent, with monthly transponder sales on the order of 20,000 a month and holding steady. By December 2003, monthly sales reached a record 56,000.

A 25-percent rate hike in March 2004 for cash-only lanes on the Turnpike Enterprise system delivered another jump in sales, creating record sales volumes at the SunPass service centers and almost completely cleaning out store racks. Almost 120,000 transponders were sold in a single month.

By mid-April, with retail outlets accounting for approximately 80 percent of daily sales, the Turnpike Enterprise reached its 2004 goal of a 50-percent participation rate—almost 9 months ahead of schedule.

Jim Ely (right), executive director and chief executive officer of Florida';s Turnpike Enterprise, shows off a retail display case for sales of electronic toll collection transponders at a drug store in Florida. With him is an unidentified regional manager for the drug store chain.


A Catalyst for ORT Deployment

Florida's Turnpike Enterprise has been credited with acting as a catalyst for change, both within FDOT and in collaboration with other toll road agencies in the State. In 2001, a partnership spearheaded by Florida's Turnpike Enterprise opened the SunCoast Parkway, a new, 68-kilometer (42-mile) toll road running north-south from the Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan area using ORT collection gantries. (See PUBLIC ROADS, September/October 2003.) Today more than 90 percent of the toll roads and bridges throughout the State are interoperable with SunPass.

Florida's Turnpike Enterprise and the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority (OOCEA), the State's second-largest toll operator, have partnered under an interoperability agreement that was adopted by FDOT. Under this agreement, Florida's Turnpike Enterprise provided OOCEA with assistance in converting its entire transponder population and toll lane equipment, allowing customers of one electronic system to effortlessly and seamlessly pay tolls on the other's system. The two entities also worked to integrate back-office operations (accounts, billing, and collections). In fiscal 2003, more than $12 million in tolls from nearly 18 million individual transactions were exchanged between the two systems.

In Lee County, FL, the same relationship now exists with the LeeWay¨ electronic toll collection system on the Sanibel Island Causeway and Midpoint and Cape Coral Bridges. LeeWay customers can use their LeeWay transponders on SunPass and OOCEA's E-Pass toll roads throughout Florida—and vice versa. The Miami-Dade Expressway Authority (MDX) operates and maintains five major expressway facilities in Miami-Dade County, FL, that serve around 500,000 commuters per day. MDX uses Florida's Turnpike Enterprise SunPass transponders, with revenue collected by Florida's Turnpike Enterprise through the SunPass program being passed back to MDX.

By offering SunPass electronic toll collection transponders for purchase at retail outlet displays like this "SunPass Tree," Florida';s Turnpike Enterprise saw a huge rise in transponder sales. Currently, more than 50 percent of the tolls collected on the turnpike are via SunPass accounts.

ORT Links Directly to Financial Strategy

Underlying these partnerships is Florida's belief that full ORT deployment will contribute significantly to the State's long-term vision for transportation operations. Once deployed, ORT technology promises to increase per-hour throughput rates for plaza capacity. Florida's Turnpike Enterprise currently processes approximately 1,700 vehicles per hour in its SunPass electronic-only lanes. The demonstration project showed that about 2,200 to 2,300 vehicles per hour can be processed through its open-road electronic installations.

Increased throughput rates will boost capacity in the short term without capital construction projects. Removing plazas and augmenting throughput rates also may contribute to increased user satisfaction, improved safety conditions, and a lower environmental impact, with fewer right-of-way acquisitions and less air pollution from congestion. "All of these benefits have the ultimate potential of positively influencing public acceptance of toll road funding and highway system expansion," says Ely.

Systemwide ORT implementation is likely to lower some costs for toll road operators, in construction and right-of-way expenditures and also in ongoing operating expenses. Based on Florida's experience, ORT has the potential of lowering per transaction costs for collecting tolls from 17 cents for cash transactions to 11 cents for electronic transactions, which includes a savings in lower levels of staff employment and management. The obvious advantage gained from this savings would be a substantial increase in bottom-line revenue.

When applied to the business model of Florida's Turnpike Enterprise, the benefits are multiplied, because system expansion relies significantly on construction-bond funding. And the ability to acquire funds at more attractive debt rates is determined by ratings in the bond market. Ratings are based on a variety of factors as evaluated by the major ratings firms in terms of debt risk. These include system operations, funding collateral, and project economics.

The increase in operational efficiency through implementing the SunPass Challenge and ORT both factor into Florida's Turnpike Enterprise's success in the bond market. In November 2004, Moody's (a provider of independent credit ratings, research, and financial information to the capital markets) upgraded Florida's Turnpike Enterprise to Aa2, the highest rating provided by Moody's Corporation for turnpikes in the country. "This high rating has allowed the Turnpike Enterprise to undertake the largest capital program in its history," says Ely, referring to a $5.4 billion work program which includes bonding for roughly $2 billion in widening and capacity expansion projects, including more than 100 new lanes and state-of-the-art ETC equipment for its SunPass customers.

"Financial soundness is one of our core operating goals—and outstanding customer service is another," says Ely. "SunPass and ORT conversion allow us to satisfy both."

Conversion and Deployment

A full-fledged commitment to ORT deployment begins with efforts to expand the adoption of electronic toll collection. Florida's Turnpike Enterprise initiated implementation in 1999 with its SunPass system, but it was not until the toll road agency announced the SunPass Challenge that those efforts achieved critical mass. The SunPass Challenge represents a concerted effort to encourage usage of electronic toll collection by combining streamlined construction protocols for SunPass-only lanes, a retail marketing and branding program for the transponders, and more effective automated toll violation technology to minimize revenue loss.

The tolling agency inaugurated the SunPass retail program in July 2003, making it the first-ever retail sales program for electronic toll collection transponders by any Government agency in the United States. The program quickly contributed to a 50-percent growth in the rate of transponder sales. In March 2004, a 25-percent toll rate hike for cash-only lanes on the Florida's Turnpike Enterprise system delivered another jump in SunPass sales, putting the agency well on its way toward its 2008 goal of a 75-percent user rate.

By offering SunPass electronic toll collection transponders for purchase at retail outlet displays like this "SunPass Tree," Florida';s Turnpike Enterprise saw a huge rise in transponder sales. Currently, more than 50 percent of the tolls collected on the turnpike are via SunPass accounts.

Florida's Turnpike Enterprise has made a similarly focused commitment to its open-road "Xpress" lanes. According to the tolling agency's 2003 annual report, Taking Initiative, Florida's Turnpike Enterprise is targeting the deployment of Xpress lanes as one of its 10 key operating strategies and is allocating $250 million through 2009 in support of that strategy.

Florida's Turnpike Enterprise has identified a goal of managing urban congestion by providing its customers with transportation choices, much like the many choices consumers have when purchasing other goods and services. In this case, the choice is paying a toll for a predictable, reliable travel option. Toll rates on the Xpress lanes will vary by time and day to ensure congestion-free travel.

The Xpress lane concept creates new capacity by adding an independent toll facility within the medians of select portions of the interstate and turnpike roadways. In 2003, Florida's Turnpike Enterprise began working with FDOT on a number of Xpress lane projects around the State. The new Xpress lanes will give travelers the option of paying a toll to drive on less congested lanes.

Laying the Groundwork For Conversion

Florida's Turnpike Enterprise also has identified conversion of the Sawgrass Expressway into a prototype as a key operating strategy that will provide the next logical step in an evolutionary process toward statewide ORT implementation.

The Sawgrass Expressway, which was purchased by Florida's Turnpike Enterprise from Broward County in 1990, had been scheduled for road widening to increase capacity due to high levels of commuter-generated traffic. In 2003, Florida's Turnpike Enterprise began laying the groundwork for the Sawgrass Expressway's transformation through a feasibility study, financed by the Federal Highway Administration, of variable pricing plans and ORT deployment.

This nighttime photo shows a segment of the Florida Turnpike Mainline, which runs north from the Fort Lauderdale area to north of Orlando.

At the same time, Florida's Turnpike Enterprise launched a public outreach campaign comprised of focus groups, telephone surveys, and public meetings that will serve the combined purposes of informing residents of specific options being considered and eliciting feedback that can be used in the next stages of planning and design.

In addition to providing a laboratory for adapting ORT technology to a large-scale conversion and a focused opportunity to understand and respond to public reaction, the Sawgrass Expressway offers the unique opportunity to apply, in concert with ORT, some of the ITS technologies being developed around the country.

Customer-Focused Highway Environment

The physical infrastructure for these advanced ITS technologies will include a central traffic management center with radio broadcasting capabilities, installation of traffic detection equipment in the roadway pavement, video cameras along the roadway and interchanges, and a series of dynamic message signs, all connected through a fiber-optic cable network.

Increased patrols by the Florida Highway Patrol and the State's Road Ranger motorist assistance program, along with recently developed incident-clearing protocols, will work in concert with these new capabilities to monitor and respond to incidents involving changing roadway conditions, congestion density, or crashes. The end result will be a highway environment that meets the highest expectations of the public, transportation professionals, and, most of all, those who use the highway.

By consistently focusing efforts on customer satisfaction in the planning and design of highway facilities, Florida's Turnpike Enterprise fulfills both short- and long-term mandates that dictate leveraging the latest technological advances, like ORT, to meet both the growing transportation needs of the State and the demand of funding those needs, to the greatest extent possible, by that portion of the State's residents who most often use those facilities.

Evelio Suarez is director of toll operations for Florida's Turnpike Enterprise, where he oversees the State's $600 million annual toll collection program. He has been with FDOT for 14 years and serves as senior management advisor on the ORT project team.

Kevin Hoeflich, P.E., is deputy program director, vice president for PBS&J's General Engineering Consultant program for FDOT, Florida's Turnpike Enterprise. He has spent the last 11 years working with toll facilities and currently is leading efforts to implement Xpress lanes and open-road tolling.

For more information, contact Evelio Suarez at evelio.suarez or Kevin Hoeflich at