Make SunPass work with other states’ toll sys­tems

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Opinion -

With a sim­ple app on your cell­phone, you can sum­mon a car and driver al­most ev­ery­where in the United States. Be­fore long, the car might even come by it­self.

But you still can’t use that cell­phone, or any other sin­gle de­vice, to pass through high­way toll booths across the coun­try, de­spite the Oc­to­ber 2016 dead­line Congress gave the states to make their elec­tronic toll sys­tems “in­ter­op­er­a­ble.” Swiftly flow the years.

The goal of “in­ter­op­er­abil­ity,” in plain English, means your Florida SunPass transpon­der, which fi­nally works in Ge­or­gia and North Carolina, should also get you through toll booths in the 17-state E-ZPass sys­tem that cov­ers most of the North­east, Mid-At­lantic and Mid­west re­gions, and any­where else where tolls are logged elec­tron­i­cally.

But it doesn’t and there’s no telling when, or even whether, it will.

State toll ad­min­is­tra­tors say they’re work­ing on it. What seems to be de­vel­op­ing, though, is a fu­ture net­work of per­haps four re­gional sys­tems, like E-ZPass, which may or may not even­tu­ally talk to each other.

This is what hap­pens when Congress tells the states to do some­thing with­out pro­vid­ing ei­ther a car­rot or a stick.

A sin­gle para­graph in the 2012 high­way fund­ing reau­tho­riza­tion act called on the states to im­ple­ment “tech­nolo­gies or busi­ness prac­tices that pro­vide for the in­ter­op­er­abil­ity of elec­tronic toll col­lec­tion pro­grams.”

For­mer Florida Con­gress­man John Mica was re­spon­si­ble for that. He got the idea on a Thanks­giv­ing drive home from Wash­ing­ton and found out that his E-ZPass transpon­der wouldn’t work on the Florida Turn­pike. He chaired the sub­com­mit­tee that wrote the dead­line into law. The pro­vi­sion might not have passed had there been teeth in it.

The time for be­ing nicey-nicey has passed. The fact that some states have man­aged to cre­ate some re­gional ar­range­ments leaves lit­tle room to ar­gue that it can’t be done na­tion­wide.

When Congress yielded to Moth­ers Against Drunk Driv­ing and told the states to raise the le­gal age for pur­chas­ing al­co­hol to 21, the law con­tained a big stick: they would lose 10 per­cent of their an­nual high­way funds for not com­ply­ing. That was an ex­treme stretch of the Congress’s con­sti­tu­tional power to reg­u­late in­ter­state com­merce, but the Supreme Court al­lowed it.

Toll booths, many of them in­stalled on high­ways that fed­eral money paid to build, are in­dis­putably an in­ter­state com­merce is­sue. It goes beyond merely the con­ve­nience of truck driv­ers and other mo­torists. Ve­hi­cles idling in the lines be­hind toll booths waste en­ergy and add pol­lu­tants to the at­mos­phere.

Sim­i­lar con­sid­er­a­tions are why you can turn right on a red light after stop­ping, un­less a posted sign says oth­er­wise. They’re why lo­cal and state gov­ern­ments are in­creas­ingly de­sign­ing new high­way in­ter­sec­tions as traf­fic cir­cles with­out stop lights. Safety is an­other bonus; there would be fewer rear-end crashes at toll booths. And it’s ob­vi­ously less ex­pen­sive to charge credit cards or SunPass ac­counts than to pay three shifts of peo­ple to col­lect tolls by hand. Most elec­tronic sys­tems ad­ver­tise dis­counts to mo­torists who sign up.

But your SunPass transpon­der doesn’t work on the New York State Thruway. So, no dis­count. If you drive along a toll road like the Saw­grass Ex­press­way, which doesn’t take cash and you don’t have the right transpon­der, a cam­era will prob­a­bly pho­to­graph your li­cense plate and you’ll get a bill in the mail. There’s not only no dis­count, but there may be a sur­charge

($2.50 in Florida) for sim­ply us­ing toll-by­plate.

If it’s so sim­ple to pho­to­graph your li­cense plate for a toll charge or a red-light vi­o­la­tion, why is it so seem­ingly dif­fi­cult to put SunPass, EZ-Pass and other pre­paid toll sys­tems into a data-shar­ing net­work? If

38 sep­a­rate agen­cies com­bined to make EZ-Pass work, why can’t Ge­or­gia’s Peach Pass com­mu­ni­cate with EZ-Pass, as it does with Florida’s and North Carolina’s toll sys­tems?

Ac­cord­ing to the on­line magazine Wired, the AAA and other sources, the an­swer is about bu­reau­cracy as well as tech­nol­ogy. Many states are wed­ded to spe­cific providers. (Florida’s mar­riage to its cur­rent con­trac­tor, Con­duent State & Lo­cal So­lu­tions, is not far short of a dis­as­ter. The last of bills that piled up last sum­mer are just now be­ing sent. The Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion ad­mits the new sys­tem was “com­pletely over­whelmed.”) Their ad­min­is­tra­tive poli­cies dif­fer as well.

Here’s how Wired de­scribed the prob­lem:

“The deals each agency has to work out are le­gion. For ex­am­ple, say the agency you bought your pass from has a pretty le­nient neg­a­tive ac­count bal­ance pol­icy — they let you run it down to mi­nus $15 be­fore declar­ing your tag delin­quent. But then you travel over some bridge owned by a tight­fisted agency that won’t let you pass if your ac­count has less than $5 left. None shall pass!”

The tech­no­log­i­cal and bu­reau­cratic ob­sta­cles are real, which is why Congress gave the states time to sur­mount them. Enough time has passed. Congress should set a new short-range dead­line after which non­com­pli­ant states would lose a por­tion of their fed­eral high­way aid.

Ours is a coun­try that can do al­most any­thing when it’s of a mind to. It took only four months for a con­ven­tion to weld 13 quar­rel­some states into a union and less than a year to rat­ify the Con­sti­tu­tion the del­e­gates pro­duced. Amer­ica fought World War II for three years and nine months, in­vent­ing nu­clear weaponry within that span. But it’s al­most been seven years since Congress told the states to get with each other on elec­tronic toll col­lec­tion.

Four Florid­i­ans serve on the House Com­mit­tee on Trans­porta­tion and In­fra­struc­ture, which has ju­ris­dic­tion. They are Democrats Fred­er­ica Wil­son of Mi­ami Gar­dens and Deb­bie Mu­carsel-Pow­ell of Pinecrest and Repub­li­cans Daniel Web­ster of Win­ter Gar­den and Brian Mast of Palm City. We call on them to bring Mica’s vi­sion to fruition. It will be even bet­ter if you call on them to do so.

Ed­i­to­ri­als are the opin­ion of the Sun Sen­tinel Ed­i­to­rial Board and writ­ten by one of its mem­bers or a de­signee. The Ed­i­to­rial Board con­sists of Ed­i­to­rial Page Ed­i­tor Rose­mary O’Hara, Ser­gio Bus­tos and Ed­i­tor-in-Chief Julie An­der­son.

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