Tools for making prudent decisions in the midst of rapidly changing technology

The key for today's toll agencies is not to predict change but to prepare for it. That means getting maximum useful life from current systems and ensuring maximum flexibility when moving forward with any new investments. How? Approach the problem strategically.

Predicting the future is challenging but planning for it is crucial
The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act's mandate for nationwide interoperability has produced a flood of new products and business models, promising lower costs and more efficient, effective results for electronic tolling. The advance of smartphone applications, GPS-based tolling products and the various paths to national interoperability are certainly developments of note — not to mention connected vehicle technology and autonomous vehicles — but it is still too early to know exactly how these technologies will influence the industry.
Within back-office operations, there are opportunities for advanced customer relationship management, next-generation image processing systems and system security enhancements. But these opportunities also present questions: Should we be investing in these new technologies? If so, which ones and when? Should we change how we do business? If we don’t, what are the consequences?
There are no easy answers and the situation is complicated further by the divergence of roadway, back-office and customer service operations into separate industry segments that nonetheless still must be coordinated.
Proceed strategically
The question isn’t which shiny, new toy to buy, but are these new technologies better for meeting future needs than current strategies? If so, in what combination and when? The following tools can help agencies answer those questions:
• Risk registers. Creating a risk assessment/risk register and knowing the agency’s tolerance for risks — especially the financial and technological ones — can go a long way in making informed, prudent decisions regarding new technology or business practices.
• Strategic planning. Taking a purposeful approach allows agencies to incorporate business and risk models and realize the maximum useful life of their existing systems. Strategic planning can help identify system goals, develop a concept for the future and understand how and when to incorporate new technologies. It also will help agencies avoid reactive, costly responses to the use of new approaches and technologies.

During the strategic planning process, consider what the next 10 years may bring. For example:
–  What if the worlds of toll technology, mobile technology, automobile technology and personal technology merge? How will you deal with autonomous and connected vehicles?

–  What if the industry is no longer using transponder-based tolling and smartphones become the key to interoperability?

–  What will your customers look like in 10 years? How might customer preferences change? How will privacy issues evolve?
• Success management workshops. As part of the planning process, define what success looks like and the requirements necessary to achieve that vision. Engage key agency stakeholders and obtain input and buy-in early in the planning and development process.

• System assessments. Understand the current system’s gaps and its ability for growth. Conduct an assessment of future requirements and then identify where the current system falls short. Include back-office, operations and roadway systems. Think about necessary information technology infrastructure, regional growth and required legislation.

The solution should incorporate all of an agency’s systems as part of a modular but coordinated approach. This exercise will help you make informed decisions about transition planning, procurements and/or upgrades needed to meet the agency’s goals.
• Customer outreach. Consider how plans and decisions will affect customers and other key stakeholders. The implementation of AET and new customer service functionality has been an eye-opener to the importance of properly understanding and managing customers while assuring revenue collection. Incorporating these lessons learned along with new technologies and approaches is one of the keys to future success.
• Outsourcing. Outsourcing some services may help extend the back-office system’s useful life. During the planning process, weigh the benefits of specialization and the potential lower costs of outsourcing. The tradeoff will be additional project management versus potentially less control.
• Network. Take an active role in the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, ITS America, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators and other groups who share common goals for promoting sustainable roads and sustainable financing.

Ask contacts in the industry about their experiences. But remember, every situation is unique. One agency may be highly successful at video billing largely because it is a commuter facility with a low level of commercial traffic while another facility may have significant out-of-state traffic.

• Scanning tours. Technical tours of other facilities can be a great way to educate staff.

• Testing. Seek opportunities to participate in federal programs designed to test new technologies, such as the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Request for Information as part of its Connected Vehicle Pilot Deployment Program. Ask vendors to provide new products and seek the help of your toll adviser to conduct demonstrations or testing that will minimally impact current operations and revenue collection.

- The Washington State Department of Transportation completed a prototype test of smartphone technology equipped with radio-frequency identification technology, which turns a cellphone into a transponder. 
- The Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority recently became an automated vehicle test bed, joining a small affiliation of other test bed locations nationwide.

• Bridging. Can you incorporate short- to midterm “bridge” solutions — or a gradual transition to new technology and approaches, depending on current system life cycles, funding, agency resources and overall risk aversion? For example, some toll agencies are incrementally improving current operations by installing multiprotocol readers, which require switching out equipment but don’t require significant change to infrastructure.

• Contracting. If you should choose a new technology or approach, it is important to properly allocate risks and responsibilities and include performance standards in contractual agreements. The consequences of nonperformance also must be clearly spelled out. Using a well-thought-out, properly planned approach, your toll agency can retain the right amount of control over revenue assurance and customer service.

• Qualified toll adviser. A knowledgeable adviser will be involved in all aspects of the toll industry. The right independent consultant can bring together the necessary unbiased knowledge and tools to ensure both short- and long-term results are achieved. Further, qualified advisers will have vetted many of the solutions on the market and can offer a cadre of best practices based on previous implementations.

Toll agencies can’t predict the future, but they can prepare for it
From strategic planning to success management workshops, there are a range of techniques that provide a logical approach to addressing today’s critical questions and arriving at prudent answers that will help ensure success.