Electronic toll collection (ETC) systems charge a toll to users without requiring any action or stopping by the driver. The system debits the accounts of registered car owners or identifies the license plate for later billing, without requiring vehicles to stop. ETC lanes improve the speed and efficiency of traffic flow and save drivers time.
ETC can be added to any tolled facility through various technologies such as a bar code label affixed to the vehicle, a proximity card, a radio-frequency transponder mounted in the vehicle, license plate recognition, and global positioning systems (GPS).
Smartphones have opened up new ETC methods. Georgia’s Peach Pass system introduced a free smartphone app allowing drivers to designate occupancy/toll eligibility for its express lanes. Other apps allow users to pay for tolls through PayPal or a bank card account.Executive Summary
Any new or existing toll or priced facility is a candidate for an ETC system. The reliable and relatively inexpensive technology means this is a standard element of modern toll roads.
How Will This Help?
Typical ETC systems improve the traffic flow through the toll area. A comparison of toll-collection methods in the table below shows the advantages.
|Toll collection lanes that use…||Handle about…|
|Manual collection||350 vehicles per hour|
|Automatic coin machines||500 vehicles per hour|
|ETC located in a traditional plaza configuration with island structures on each side of the lane||1,200 vehicles per hour|
|ETC in an all-electronic tolling (AET) configuration||1,800 vehicles per hour.1|
Thus, an AET lane offers over five times the flow rate of a manual lane and nearly four times the flow rate of an automatic coin machine lane.
Most ETC lanes are less expensive to build and operate than traditional toll collection methods. Cost data averaged for five toll facilities in five states showed ETC systems provide the following cost savings:
- Over $40,000 per lane in equipment costs.
- $40,000 per lane in annual operating and maintenance costs compared to automatic coin machines.
- $135,000 per lane in annual operating and maintenance costs compared to manual tollbooths.2
ETC lane usage decreases emissions in the area. Practitioners have reported that the ETC system at three toll plazas in Baltimore, Maryland—with dedicated ETC lanes located in a traditional plaza configuration with island structures on each side of the lane—reduced hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide 40 to 63 percent, and nitrogen oxide approximately 16 percent in the study area.3
The Georgia state toll authority is currently offering an application (Peach Pass GO!) for iPhones and Android phones that allows drivers to register the number of passengers in the vehicle to avoid being charged the typical toll. Users can check their account status through their home computers or apps. The app is similar to that of Virgina’s E-ZPass Flex, which allows drivers to change their toll status in real time on the transponder in their car.4
Several phone app developers are also currently working on programs that allow drivers to pay tolls via mobile phones. Typical systems require the driver to enter the license plate number before or immediately after the trip. The application is then directly linked to a PayPal account or bank card that is automatically charged on recognition of the vehicle from gantry-mounted cameras. This payment method can avoid the expensive image-based tolling and allow the toll authority to better serve non-account holders.4
ETC lanes started to be widely deployed in toll facilities in the early 1990s. First as a simple upgrade of manual lanes, the converted ETC lane started in a traditional plaza and later was converted to ETC-only facilities such as open-road tolling (ORT) and AET.
Numerous studies document ETC benefits. In Florida’s University toll plaza, the addition of ORT to the existing ETC mainline toll plaza decreased delay by 50 percent for manual cash customers and by 55 percent for automatic coin machine customers. ORT also increased speed by 57 percent in the express lanes. These results are based on data collected during a 20-month period before, during, and after the plaza upgrades.5
A study conducted in late 2000 to evaluate the New Jersey Turnpike Authority ETC system implementation estimated a reduced delay at the toll plazas for all vehicles by approximately 85 percent, for a total savings of about 2.1 million vehicle-hours per year.6
San Francisco, California
Researchers have developed several models for assessing ETC benefits and costs. One study ran a model using actual data for the ETC system at the Carquinez Bridge in the San Francisco Bay area. The model estimated that the project would generate a benefit-cost ratio of 40 over the 10-year evaluation period. Time savings is a major direct benefit of ETC, but other benefits include energy savings, emission reduction, and service improvement. Toll patrons were the primary beneficiaries.7
Application Techniques and Principles
Typical ETC systems are comprised of four subsystems:
- Automatic vehicle classification (AVC).
- A violation enforcement system (VES).
- Automatic vehicle identification (AVI).
- Transaction processing, which includes a back office and customer service center.
Automatic Vehicle Classification
AVC systems consist of sensors installed in the toll lanes to detect and classify the vehicles for proper tolling. The AVC technique is most commonly performed using overhead equipment (laser or infrared detectors) or intelligent detector loops embedded in the pavement. The detectors can also be placed on the roadside. The sensors are capable of perceiving and classifying vehicles in ORT or AET environments.
Violation Enforcement System
The primary goal of VES is to reduce the number of toll evaders with the assistance of multiple types of solutions. These methods range from fairly basic (audible and/or visual alarms) to complex systems, such as automatic license plate recognition camera-based solutions. Police enforcement and toll gates are other types of successful VES but can be costly and inefficient for high traffic volumes.
Camera-based VES captures images of each vehicle’s front and/or rear license plates, depending on the toll authority’s regulations. The necessary equipment consists of a camera (or array of cameras), an illumination system, and a controller card or computer that interfaces with the lane controller and/or the back office. A camera-based VES with plate recognition serves a dual purpose of enforcement and video tolling.
Automatic Vehicle Identification
AVI systems properly identify each vehicle in order to charge the toll to a particular customer. This ETC method is typically done with various AVI technologies such as a bar-coded label affixed to the vehicle, proximity card, radio or infrared transponder, and automatic license plate recognition.
A majority of AVI systems involve radio-frequency identity (RFID) and plate recognition technologies. The RFID system uses an antenna to communicate with a transponder in each registered vehicle. Video tolling identifies the license plate and charges a customer or sends a bill to unregistered drivers, with help from the Department of Motor Vehicles’ address database.
The back office consists of the:
- Host and/or plaza system. The main functions are to aggregate transactional data from all the lanes, summarize data, generate reports, and download files such as toll rates, toll schedules, and the transponder status list.
- Customer service center. The main functions are to process the AVI and video tolling transactions, match transactions with account holders, debit the correct toll amount, manage accounts, generate a valid tag list, and provide customer support.
- Violation processing center. The main functions are to process the images of the licenses plates, identify violators, and mail notices.
Most of the technological issues have been overcome after two decades of successful ETC implementations. The current issues with implementing ETC systems are interoperability and technology selection. Although all the toll facilities within Texas are currently interoperable (i.e., one tag can be used on all toll facilities), there is a lack of interoperability with other states, with toll facilities at border crossings, and in Mexico. Currently, only the Dallas-area’s TollTag can be used in Oklahoma. The need for interoperability between border crossings and toll roads within the United States will continue to increase as toll roads are built near the border.
Technology selection directly impacts interoperability. If a toll agency selects a different RFID protocol, then it might not be able to read customers from other agencies. Cities and local toll authorities should work together to create a compatible system throughout the state.
On July 6, 2012, President Obama signed the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act into law. This act requires all toll facilities on the federal-aid system to implement technologies or business practices that provide for the interoperability of ETC programs. The purpose is to allow motorists to seamlessly travel the various toll systems in the country.
Who Is Responsible?
The local toll authority, the Texas Department of Transportation toll division, or a concessionaire can be responsible for the implementation of an ETC system, depending on the toll location. In most cases, a systems integrator contractor designs and implements these types of systems. The operations and maintenance are performed by either the toll authority or a contractor.
Project Time Frame
The typical time frame for deploying an ETC system depends on the size and may vary from nine months for simple upgrade to two years or more for additions for larger systems.
The cost of implementing an ETC system varies widely depending on the scope of the project, making it difficult to provide an exact cost. The following factors can affect the project price:
- The system size (number of lanes and collection points).
- Shoulder coverage.
- Gantry type.
- Type of technology.
- Whether the system is new, upgraded, or added onto.
- The level of customized software required for the business rules.
- The back office operation (outsource or in-house).
- The project location.
- The necessary signage.
The cost per ETC lane in an AET or ORT environment ranges from $100,000 to $200,000 for the cost of the lane equipment and its installation—assuming the project reuses existing back-office software, gantry, and right of way.
The practitioner should consider whether the toll system is a new installation, an addition, or an upgrade of the existing area. Other data needed include:
- The throughput requirements.
- The technology used by the other toll facilities for interoperability.
- Interoperability with other states or toll agencies.
- The possibility of video tolling.
- The needs of variable pricing.
- Possible outsourcing.
- The need to handle cash-paying customers.
Electronic Toll System Best Practices
- Type of location: Any toll facility.
- Agency practices: Interoperability agreements with other in- and out-of-state toll agencies.
- Frequency of reanalysis: Monthly during the initial launch; quarterly and annually thereafter.
- Supporting policies or actions needed: Enforcement policy for out-of-state violators.
- Complementary strategies: Addition of new toll roads, active traffic management, variable pricing, improving lighting and signing, and managed lanes.
For More Information
Li, J., D. Gillen, and J. Dahlgren. Benefit-Cost Evaluation of the Electronic Toll Collection System: A Comprehensive Framework and Application. Transportation Research Record 1659, Transportation Research Board, National Research Council, Washington, D.C., 1999.
- Persad, Khali, and C. Michael Walton. Toll Collection Technology and Best Practices. Project 0-5217, Center for Transportation Research, Austin, Texas, 2007.
- Center for Urban Transportation Research. Cost-Effectiveness Analysis of AVI/ETTM for Florida’s Turnpike System. University of South Florida–Tampa, 1992.
- Saka, A. A., and D. K. Agboh. Assessment of the Impact of Electronic Toll Collection on Mobile Emissions in the Baltimore Metropolitan Area. Presented at the 81st Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting, Washington, D.C., 2002.
- Samuel, Peter. Georgia’s State Toller Offers Mobile Phone “App” for Account Management on Express Lanes. TollRoadsNews, January 21, 2012. http://www.tollroadsnews.com/node/5711.
- U.S. Department of Transportation. ETC Benefits. http://www.itscosts.its.dot.gov/its/benecost.nsf/ID/0786EF6A8384D176852573E5006D0C33? OpenDocument&Query=BApp.
- U.S. Department of Transportation. Research and Innovative Technology Administration Benefits Database. http://www.itscosts.its.dot.gov/its/benecost.nsf/ID/F679D6F9FD047AA68525733A006D53DC?OpenDocument&Query=BApp.