Cashless Toll Systems Face Potential Customer Backlash

One of the more important problems facing tollroads is creating a seamless and user-friendly system of charging users for the services of the facility. This is easy and relatively cheap for regular users–create an account. For occasional users, and perhaps the majority of travelers, the problem (and solution) isn’t so straightforward.

Traveling to Denver a few months ago, for example, I remember picking up a flyer at the rental car counter telling me I could rent a transponder if I wanted to use the region’s cashless tollroad (the E-470). I realized I probably wouldn’t be on the tollway for more than a trip or two, so it wasn’t worth the nearly $9 per day extra charge. I used non-tolled surface streets, but I wondered what would happen if I made a mistake and ended up on the tollroad without a transponder. Now I know. It would cost me a lot of money. And I probably wouldn’t know it until it was too late.

The Denver Post recently reported on the high-dollar value of fines levied against those using the tollroad without transponders or accounts with the toll agency. In addition to the tolls, drivers are fined for each violation. The bill can reach into the hundreds of dollars. Moreover, many of the violators tend to be visitors renting cars who don’t know about the cashless toll policy (even though rental car agencies post the notices).

The story from the Post is probably pretty common, and it could easily have included me:

“Since E-470 moved exclusively to cashless tolling on July 4, the process of accounting for toll-road use by people renting cars at DIA has become complex and confusing.

Nine different rental car companies use three private toll-collection companies to administer at least five separate plans for charging users of toll roads in metro Denver.

[Gary] Warmker rented his car from Dollar, which along with its sister company, Thrifty, offers unlimited toll road access to its renters for $8.95 a day, or a maximum of $32.95 a week.

If Dollar or Thrifty customers don’t sign up, and they use E-470, say because — like Warmker — they don’t know about the toll-plan option, they are billed for the tolls they incur plus an extra $25 penalty fee per toll transaction.

“I am more than willing to pay the tolls I owe, but the way they set this up smells like a scam,” said Warmker, adding that his bill of about $65 for a two-day rental ballooned to $200 after $125 in fees were tacked on top of about $11 in tolls that he incurred.

As a frequent traveler, Warmker said he uses rental-car express services that allow him to bypass counter transactions and simply climb in the car and go.

He said he never saw a flier Dollar includes in the rental-car contract packet that informs customers about the toll-payment program.”

These kinds of problems, however, are probably inevitable as electronic tolling attempts to break into the mainstream. Now, cashless tolling is a new phenomenon, and most electronic tollroads include a cash option. The problem of the occasional user, however, is an important one and runs the risk of creating a popular backlash against tolling and user fees if it is not addressed forthrightly and efficiently. As more tollroads become completely cashless, the industry will have to sort out more customer friendly and efficient ways to collect the user fees as an alternative to brow-beating that comes through heavy fines intent on changing behavior (and implicitly assuming the user is acquainted with the system).

Peter Samuel, editor of the e-newsletter, observed the following in a recent discussion on a congestion-pricing internet list-serve:

“There are similar reports other places – Illinois, S Calif, Texas – not just with cashless but “open road tolling down the middle and cash to the sides.

“My sense is that there are faults by both motorists and tollers. The tollers are going to have to manage this better. And motorists are going to have to pay more attention to signs, to what arrives in the mail, and pay their bills. Some of the problems arise from difficulties with cameras and reference to motor registry databases.
“Most of these problems would go away if there were a transponder built into every license plate or vehicle registration sticker at a cost of about $2/vehicle – the ISO 18000 6C sticker tag is the favorite technology. Mexico and Brazil are both committed to implementing this with vehicle registration and US state motor registries are looking at it, but very cautiously.
“It is also incidentally a very promising technology for congestion pricing or VMT charges.
“One thing’s for sure: we’re not going back to the old toll gate that blocks the motorist and doesn’t rise until payment is received, so we’ve got to make cashless work.”
I couldn’t agree more, especially since the technology exists to levy these fees and fines at relatively low cost. Nevertheless, this is an example of the type of implementation issue toll agencies (and their collection agencies) will have to resolve for cashless, electronic tolling to be broadly accepted by the public.
If they don’t solve it, they could be setting themselves up for a popular backlash that would set tolling and user-based funding back decades in the U.S.