SmartBrief recently spoke with Pat Jones, executive director and CEO of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, to look back on 2020, a year like no other.
It seems that one of the themes of this year was the importance of flexibility amid rapidly changing circumstances. How has the tolling industry adapted to such a difficult year?
The world experienced dramatic and unprecedented changes with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. The global tolling industry stepped up immediately to keep customers and employees safe and facilities and services open and available for the mobility of emergency response, health care workers and essential supply chains.
The immediate business impacts of the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders hit the tolling industry hard, with traffic volumes down 50% to 80%. Nonetheless, toll facilities were among the most resilient elements of the transportation sector, with activity declines being far greater in public transit, rail and air traffic. This points to the role of our roadway systems and toll facilities as critical infrastructure, not only as a foundation for economic activity in “normal” times, but as a fundamental element of emergency response. Essential workers and goods moved safely and reliably on the roadways and toll facilities from the outset of the pandemic, which was not true of other transportation modes.
Looking ahead to 2021, how should we expect the industry to build upon the success and partial recovery we’ve seen in the second half of 2020?
For everyone facing a long-term pandemic recovery along a very uncertain path, Building Back Better will call for care and flexibility. In the tolling community, the pandemic has accelerated some longer-term plans that would otherwise have rolled out more gradually.Some agencies found they could move more quickly to implement cashless tolling, at a moment when customers were onboard with the concept and inclined to be patient if programs weren’t 100% perfect at first.
- Agencies built back better with improved customer service centers and amenities, better ramp signage, process efficiencies and opportunities to work smarter. Some of them explored ways of catering to infrequent users in an era of increased telecommuting. Others developed customer outreach and communications strategies to ease the worries of users who were still concerned about health and safety.
- The pandemic drives home the need for established and well-exercised business continuity and disaster recovery plans. For example, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s experience with the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the 2003 Northeast electrical power failure and Superstorm Sandy led to development of business continuity plans that were regularly exercised. The result was an organization that was better prepared to communicate, coordinate and collaborate across the agency and with regional partners to advance cogent responses and solutions to changing requirements and problems.
- Other changes resulting from the pandemic will take longer to understand and integrate. With many people now telling opinion researchers they enjoy working from home, transportation providers of all kinds will have to understand the implications for service delivery, congestion and revenue.
From mobility as a service to essential road and bridge maintenance and improvements, it’s clear that practical funding is a key element of ensuring people can travel safely and easily. What role does tolling play and why is it such an ideal financing option?
Despite an abundance of uncertainty, there are many things we know confidently about the future. Transportation infrastructure is still in dire need of investment. Highway infrastructure has proven to be a resilient sector of the transportation industry and critical to emergency response and economic recovery. Highways are at the foundation of strong and capable economies at the local, national and global levels. Funding and financing of transportation operations and investment will be challenged by the difficult post-pandemic financial environment that governments and businesses will be facing. Transportation operations and infrastructure will still need a full menu of financing and funding options to get things done. And the global tolling industry will play an essential role as we emerge from the pandemic together — just as it did when the crisis first hit.
We’ve already witnessed the benefits of technology, such as cashless tolling and smartphone apps that allow drivers to manage their accounts conveniently. What technological advances should we expect to see in tolling in the future?
The pandemic certainly accelerated the move to more cashless tolling to keep everyone safe. Looking ahead, IBTTA members are exploring a range of new technologies and applications including the use of connected and automated vehicles, truck platooning, road usage charging, blockchain, innovations in customer management, and more. While the future poses many challenges, we also see many opportunities for our industry to continue delivering mobility around the world through sustainable funding and financing.