Tolls and technology

The U.S. has successfully used electronic tolling for over a decade. And while congestion charging has worked well in London, Germany just cancelled its Toll Collect road pricing system. This article highlights the importance of choosing the right technology: It is coincidence that the German Transport Ministry announced plans to cancel its troubled Toll Collect project as London announced its first year of successful congestion charging and the possibility of extending the scheme beyond central London. These two road-pricing initiatives embraced alternative technological solutions, differing in terms of complexity, maturity and, therefore, project risk. Toll Collect, the DaimlerCrysler-led tolling system, aimed to harness satellite-tracking technology allied to mobile phones in order to extract distance-based autobahn fees from truckers. Ongoing problems with in-vehicle equipment have delayed its implementation since August 2003, leaving the system supplier reporting a loss of $875 million. The German government has also lost considerable revenue, which was specifically earmarked for new road construction projects. In contrast, the London road-charging scheme deploys a network of closed-circuit television cameras linked to number-plate recognition software. Images are cross-referenced against a database of those who have registered to pay the charge. Violators are identified and fined. Such technology has been employed by American toll road operators for more than 10 years. Teething problems were encountered regarding the quality of customer service, the responsiveness of the call center, and appeals against penalty charges, but contract revisions have been negotiated with the operator, Capita PLC, to address these service shortfalls. The Austrian system for truck tolling, GO, also favored tried-and-tested technology. Its system uses dedicated short-range radio communications between an in-vehicle transmitter and gantry-based receivers and builds on considerable U.S. experience. GO was launched on time and within budget at the beginning of 2004. (Via the Transportation Communications Newsletter)