Featuring developments in Federal highway policies, programs, and research and technology.
|This magazine is an archived publication and may contain dated technical, contact, and link information.|
|Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 68 · No. 6 > Dispelling Highway Construction Myths|
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-05-005
Dispelling Highway Construction Myths
by Evelio Suarez and Kevin Hoeflich
Florida is testing a prototype installation of open-road tolling technology for future deployment.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation's 2003 Transportation Statistics Annual Report, it takes "39 percent longer, on average, to make a peak period trip in urban areas compared with the time it would take if traffic were flowing freely." For example, a commute that should take 30 minutes actually takes 42 minutes.
Traffic congestion is not just an urban issue. As smaller communities and suburbs grow, travelers in those areas are "feeling the pain" as well. User demand simply exceeds the supply of roads in many areas across the country.
Even though the Nation has spent billions in transportation improvements over the past decade, resources and funding remain limited. The Nation simply cannot build its way out of traffic congestion.
Solutions are available, however, that transportation managers can employ to improve operations on existing roadways to obtain the most capacity out of the existing infrastructure. These solutions include, for instance, signal timing improvements, construction during nonpeak hours and weekends, road design enhancements, improved signage, and removal of manmade obstacles that slow or even stop the flow of traffic.
Sometimes tollbooths are used as ramp metering devices to improve downstream traffic flows. But tollbooths may obstruct traffic flow, particularly cash-only tollbooths where money is collected vehicle by vehicle, sometimes causing idling and backups on toll and feeder roads. Idling not only causes driver frustration but also decreases national productivity and contributes to degraded air quality.
Transportation agencies that collect tolls for use of infrastructure are trying to leverage new technology to remove traffic congestion from their roadways. Open-road electronic toll collection or open-road tolling (ORT) is gaining popularity as a possible means to increase throughput and funding at the same time. But as with any launch of a new product or service, this concept will depend on acceptance by users.
At first glance, it may not look like much—an array of electronic components, transponders, and readers and cameras attached to steel bars hanging under a highway bridge over Florida's Turnpike just north of Fort Lauderdale. In January 2004, technicians established a gantry site on the turnpike's Oakland Park Boulevard Bridge for demonstrating electronic toll collection equipment. The manufacturer will use the site for testing and fine-tuning the technology for the future deployment of ORT, or cashless, highway-speed electronic toll collection.
Just 16 kilometers (10 miles) away is the immediate, primary target for the Florida Turnpike's ORT deployment, the Sawgrass Expressway. This 37-kilometer (23-mile) four- and six-lane connector is on the northwest outskirts of metropolitan Fort Lauderdale. Florida's Turnpike Enterprise, the tolling agency, already has begun implementing plans to turn this congested stretch of commuter highway into a prototype highway of the future. The Sawgrass Expressway will be a user-financed toll road that delivers maximum potential in customer service through technologies such as ORT, traffic management strategies, widened roadways and ramps, the addition of aesthetically pleasing environmental treatments, and state- of-the-art intelligent transportation system (ITS) functions.
A New Revenue Source
The Oakland Park Boulevard demonstration site and the Sawgrass Expressway ORT prototype represent a few visible elements of Florida Turnpike's vision. Since the conversion of Florida's Turnpike Enterprise in 2002 to a stand-alone operating unit of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), the toll road agency has begun pursuing a vision of the future in which private sector business principles provide the means to fulfilling public sector goals.
"Our primary goal is to meet the ongoing highway transportation needs for what has been, and will likely continue to be, one of the fastest growing States in the country," says James L. Ely, Ph.D., D.P.A., executive director and chief executive officer of Florida's Turnpike Enterprise. "The principle guiding this new mission is our belief that, to the greatest extent possible, roadways should be user-financed."
According to Reinventing Florida's Turnpike: The Enterprise Model, a publication of Florida's Turnpike Enterprise, the tolling agency's business plan calls for reliance primarily on annual toll revenues for operating income and debt retirement. Projected revenues will act as security in the issuance of public-finance bonds for interim funding of required capital expansion projects.
"Seemingly Unbridgeable Gap" in Highway Funding
At the onset of the 21st century, two opposing trends for highway transportation became clear. First, State and Federal gasoline taxes and Federal surface transportation allocations appear to have reached a hiatus. Second, demand for expansion of the current highway system—both to relieve congestion in densely populated areas and to meet transportation demands in newly populated and rapidly growing areas—continues to increase at a significantly rapid rate with no signs of slowing.
In Surface Transportation: Confronting the Backlog, William Streeter, Cherian George, and Scott Trommer describe the present state of affairs as a "seemingly unbridgeable gap in surface transportation funding needs."
In response to this apparent inability of the current gas-tax-based system to keep up with growing demand, proponents believe that user-based funding in the form of toll or indirect user charges may be a solution. Proponents also believe that widespread implementation of ORT technology has the potential to promote wider acceptance of toll-based funding for highway building.
Conversion to ORT an Evolutionary Process
In pursuit of systemwide deployment of ORT, Florida's Turnpike Enterprise was helped by a 2001 report, The Feasibility of Open-Road Tolling in Florida, a study conducted by the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida and sponsored by FDOT, the Florida Turnpike Authority, the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority, and the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority.
The study examined the potential implications of statewide ORT conversion, especially as it might affect the areas of customer service and marketing; collections and operations; traffic and revenue; and engineering, organizational, and legal issues. The study's authors examined obstacles to statewide ORT deployment and found the following:
"An overwhelming majority of current cash paying customers and [nontoll] road users believe that cash should always be an option on toll facilities. Almost as many indicated a willingness to subscribe to an electronic toll collection program if discounts were offered or if it meant not having to stop to pay a toll.
"Of all of the issues addressed throughout the course of the study, none was more debated and discussed than that of the wisdom and appropriateness of eliminating the ability of customers to pay cash in a traditional toll lane. What is clearly apparent is that in order to move to more automated and high-speed toll collection, actions and programs to increase the use of electronic transponders must continue to be pursued."
The report also indicated that there were significant issues raised in the analysis of operations and collections reliability in deploying the ORT, such as "an increased potential for revenue losses due to [uncollectible] invoices, a surcharge to maintain revenue neutrality, and the potential functional obsolescence of the existing AVI [automatic vehicle identification] system." One issue that the study indicated was potential collections from out-of-State users.
Statutory changes also would be needed because of some technical challenges with license plate readability and identification (that is, discerning characters on license plates appropriately might mean the possibility of making plates consistent in character font, size, contrast of color, and reflective materials), payment enforcement, law enforcement vehicle access to real-time driver account status or portable transponder readers, and access to Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) information, both in-State and out-of-State.
The report mentioned other issues such as a lack of standards concerning transponder type, operations, software, and approaches to integrating video. There was also a wide range of quality and performance "among vendors of video and OCR [optical character recognition] technology that appears to be independent of the cost of these components."
The study concluded with the feasibility of a phased-in approach but cautioned that "several of the social and political ramifications present formidable issues" and recommended an evolutionary path starting with acclimating the public to transponder usage and "committing to as many express lanes as feasible as quickly as possible."
"ORT deployment is the final step in an evolutionary process," notes Ely. "This process begins with the promotion of electronic toll availability and usage and continues with conversion of existing electronic toll lanes to open-road electronic toll lanes. Ultimately, we will reach the stage where we're able to completely remove all existing toll plazas."
SunPass Transponders In the Sunshine State
Florida's Turnpike Enterprise realized that it would not be successful in maintaining high standards for customer service and operating efficiency in a State expected to grow 25 percent over the next decade—without significant growth in electronic toll collection (ETC) using SunPass ETC transponders. The Florida's Turnpike Enterprise's concerted program to increase ETC usage, the SunPass Challenge, began earnestly in 2001.
Florida's Turnpike Enterprise is focusing its SunPass Challenge efforts in three areas: streamlined design and construction protocols to add approximately 100 SunPass-only lanes to the system, violation enforcement upgrades (see "Protecting the Revenue Stream, page 66) to safeguard the revenue stream, and marketing techniques to motivate turnpike users to switch to electronic toll collection (see "Making ETC Convenient," page 67). The ultimate goal is to increase the ETC user rate to 75 percent by the end of 2008.
For the next 8 to 10 years, most of Florida's Turnpike Enterprise's tolls will still be collected from SunPass-only and cash lanes. The Florida Turnpike Enterprise believes that ORT represents the next generation of electronic toll collection, in which tolls will be collected via SunPass transponders from vehicles moving at highway speeds (rather than having to slow down to move through a toll plaza).
A Catalyst for ORT Deployment
Florida's Turnpike Enterprise has been credited with acting as a catalyst for change, both within FDOT and in collaboration with other toll road agencies in the State. In 2001, a partnership spearheaded by Florida's Turnpike Enterprise opened the SunCoast Parkway, a new, 68-kilometer (42-mile) toll road running north-south from the Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan area using ORT collection gantries. (See PUBLIC ROADS, September/October 2003.) Today more than 90 percent of the toll roads and bridges throughout the State are interoperable with SunPass.
Florida's Turnpike Enterprise and the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority (OOCEA), the State's second-largest toll operator, have partnered under an interoperability agreement that was adopted by FDOT. Under this agreement, Florida's Turnpike Enterprise provided OOCEA with assistance in converting its entire transponder population and toll lane equipment, allowing customers of one electronic system to effortlessly and seamlessly pay tolls on the other's system. The two entities also worked to integrate back-office operations (accounts, billing, and collections). In fiscal 2003, more than $12 million in tolls from nearly 18 million individual transactions were exchanged between the two systems.
In Lee County, FL, the same relationship now exists with the LeeWay¨ electronic toll collection system on the Sanibel Island Causeway and Midpoint and Cape Coral Bridges. LeeWay customers can use their LeeWay transponders on SunPass and OOCEA's E-Pass toll roads throughout Florida—and vice versa. The Miami-Dade Expressway Authority (MDX) operates and maintains five major expressway facilities in Miami-Dade County, FL, that serve around 500,000 commuters per day. MDX uses Florida's Turnpike Enterprise SunPass transponders, with revenue collected by Florida's Turnpike Enterprise through the SunPass program being passed back to MDX.
ORT Links Directly to Financial Strategy
Underlying these partnerships is Florida's belief that full ORT deployment will contribute significantly to the State's long-term vision for transportation operations. Once deployed, ORT technology promises to increase per-hour throughput rates for plaza capacity. Florida's Turnpike Enterprise currently processes approximately 1,700 vehicles per hour in its SunPass electronic-only lanes. The demonstration project showed that about 2,200 to 2,300 vehicles per hour can be processed through its open-road electronic installations.
Increased throughput rates will boost capacity in the short term without capital construction projects. Removing plazas and augmenting throughput rates also may contribute to increased user satisfaction, improved safety conditions, and a lower environmental impact, with fewer right-of-way acquisitions and less air pollution from congestion. "All of these benefits have the ultimate potential of positively influencing public acceptance of toll road funding and highway system expansion," says Ely.
Systemwide ORT implementation is likely to lower some costs for toll road operators, in construction and right-of-way expenditures and also in ongoing operating expenses. Based on Florida's experience, ORT has the potential of lowering per transaction costs for collecting tolls from 17 cents for cash transactions to 11 cents for electronic transactions, which includes a savings in lower levels of staff employment and management. The obvious advantage gained from this savings would be a substantial increase in bottom-line revenue.
When applied to the business model of Florida's Turnpike Enterprise, the benefits are multiplied, because system expansion relies significantly on construction-bond funding. And the ability to acquire funds at more attractive debt rates is determined by ratings in the bond market. Ratings are based on a variety of factors as evaluated by the major ratings firms in terms of debt risk. These include system operations, funding collateral, and project economics.
The increase in operational efficiency through implementing the SunPass Challenge and ORT both factor into Florida's Turnpike Enterprise's success in the bond market. In November 2004, Moody's (a provider of independent credit ratings, research, and financial information to the capital markets) upgraded Florida's Turnpike Enterprise to Aa2, the highest rating provided by Moody's Corporation for turnpikes in the country. "This high rating has allowed the Turnpike Enterprise to undertake the largest capital program in its history," says Ely, referring to a $5.4 billion work program which includes bonding for roughly $2 billion in widening and capacity expansion projects, including more than 100 new lanes and state-of-the-art ETC equipment for its SunPass customers.
"Financial soundness is one of our core operating goals—and outstanding customer service is another," says Ely. "SunPass and ORT conversion allow us to satisfy both."
Conversion and Deployment
A full-fledged commitment to ORT deployment begins with efforts to expand the adoption of electronic toll collection. Florida's Turnpike Enterprise initiated implementation in 1999 with its SunPass system, but it was not until the toll road agency announced the SunPass Challenge that those efforts achieved critical mass. The SunPass Challenge represents a concerted effort to encourage usage of electronic toll collection by combining streamlined construction protocols for SunPass-only lanes, a retail marketing and branding program for the transponders, and more effective automated toll violation technology to minimize revenue loss.
The tolling agency inaugurated the SunPass retail program in July 2003, making it the first-ever retail sales program for electronic toll collection transponders by any Government agency in the United States. The program quickly contributed to a 50-percent growth in the rate of transponder sales. In March 2004, a 25-percent toll rate hike for cash-only lanes on the Florida's Turnpike Enterprise system delivered another jump in SunPass sales, putting the agency well on its way toward its 2008 goal of a 75-percent user rate.
Florida's Turnpike Enterprise has made a similarly focused commitment to its open-road "Xpress" lanes. According to the tolling agency's 2003 annual report, Taking Initiative, Florida's Turnpike Enterprise is targeting the deployment of Xpress lanes as one of its 10 key operating strategies and is allocating $250 million through 2009 in support of that strategy.
Florida's Turnpike Enterprise has identified a goal of managing urban congestion by providing its customers with transportation choices, much like the many choices consumers have when purchasing other goods and services. In this case, the choice is paying a toll for a predictable, reliable travel option. Toll rates on the Xpress lanes will vary by time and day to ensure congestion-free travel.
The Xpress lane concept creates new capacity by adding an independent toll facility within the medians of select portions of the interstate and turnpike roadways. In 2003, Florida's Turnpike Enterprise began working with FDOT on a number of Xpress lane projects around the State. The new Xpress lanes will give travelers the option of paying a toll to drive on less congested lanes.
Laying the Groundwork For Conversion
Florida's Turnpike Enterprise also has identified conversion of the Sawgrass Expressway into a prototype as a key operating strategy that will provide the next logical step in an evolutionary process toward statewide ORT implementation.
The Sawgrass Expressway, which was purchased by Florida's Turnpike Enterprise from Broward County in 1990, had been scheduled for road widening to increase capacity due to high levels of commuter-generated traffic. In 2003, Florida's Turnpike Enterprise began laying the groundwork for the Sawgrass Expressway's transformation through a feasibility study, financed by the Federal Highway Administration, of variable pricing plans and ORT deployment.
At the same time, Florida's Turnpike Enterprise launched a public outreach campaign comprised of focus groups, telephone surveys, and public meetings that will serve the combined purposes of informing residents of specific options being considered and eliciting feedback that can be used in the next stages of planning and design.
In addition to providing a laboratory for adapting ORT technology to a large-scale conversion and a focused opportunity to understand and respond to public reaction, the Sawgrass Expressway offers the unique opportunity to apply, in concert with ORT, some of the ITS technologies being developed around the country.
Customer-Focused Highway Environment
The physical infrastructure for these advanced ITS technologies will include a central traffic management center with radio broadcasting capabilities, installation of traffic detection equipment in the roadway pavement, video cameras along the roadway and interchanges, and a series of dynamic message signs, all connected through a fiber-optic cable network.
Increased patrols by the Florida Highway Patrol and the State's Road Ranger motorist assistance program, along with recently developed incident-clearing protocols, will work in concert with these new capabilities to monitor and respond to incidents involving changing roadway conditions, congestion density, or crashes. The end result will be a highway environment that meets the highest expectations of the public, transportation professionals, and, most of all, those who use the highway.
By consistently focusing efforts on customer satisfaction in the planning and design of highway facilities, Florida's Turnpike Enterprise fulfills both short- and long-term mandates that dictate leveraging the latest technological advances, like ORT, to meet both the growing transportation needs of the State and the demand of funding those needs, to the greatest extent possible, by that portion of the State's residents who most often use those facilities.
Evelio Suarez is director of toll operations for Florida's Turnpike Enterprise, where he oversees the State's $600 million annual toll collection program. He has been with FDOT for 14 years and serves as senior management advisor on the ORT project team.
Kevin Hoeflich, P.E., is deputy program director, vice president for PBS&J's General Engineering Consultant program for FDOT, Florida's Turnpike Enterprise. He has spent the last 11 years working with toll facilities and currently is leading efforts to implement Xpress lanes and open-road tolling.
Page Owner: Office of Corporate Research, Technology, and Innovation Management
Scheduled Update: Archive - No Update
Technical Issues: TFHRC.WebMaster@dot.gov