Make SunPass work with other states’ toll systems
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.