For as little Democrats and Republicans agree on these days, the most disheartening dysfunction in Washington may be how rare bipartisan collaborations are allowed to be ignored, to the detriment and frustration of American drivers.
A 2012 law, mandating toll road agencies across the U.S. accept a universal electronic transponder, is still not getting followed. That means your summer road trip across state lines may come with surprise fall bills for failing to pay tolls.
Why doesn’t my toll pass work in other states?
According to the U.S. Travel Association, 72% of Americans plan to take road trips this summer, twice the number from 2020. But in an era where toll agencies are ditching toll collectors in favor of all-electronic tolling, not having the right pass can trigger fines and/or delayed bills.
In fact, a road trip from California to Florida would likely require at least three different transponders to communicate with all the different tolling regions across the country that aren’t yet interoperable with each other.
“To be very clear, it's not a technology issue,” said former U.S. Rep. John Mica (R-Florida). “This is a bureaucracy issue.”
Mica, who sponsored the bipartisan interoperability bill in 2012, said the nation’s more than 130 different tolling agencies - across 34 states - know how to pay each other for the billions of monthly toll transactions generated on America’s toll roads, bridges, and tunnels. But they’ve yet to sign contracts with each other, or agree on exactly which technology to use to process the transactions.
“The intent of this was good,” Mica said. “The implementation has been terrible, and it's long overdue for a simple electronic means of interoperability of toll passes across the United States.”
Regional progress has been made since 2012, with three states in the Southeast, three in the South, and all of California’s tolling agencies each collaborating to form their own interoperable partnerships. E-Z Pass, a group of toll entities across 19 states, is the nation’s largest, boasting 43 million accounts.
But the groups have been at loggerheads for years as to how to bridge the regions, and how to pay for expenses related to interoperability.
“Congress...didn't provide any funding with the mandate,” said Chris Tomlinson, executive director of the Georgia State Road & Tollway Authority. “We've made a lot of progress without a specific amount of funding... but it’s happening... we’re getting close.”
Why are states and tolling authorities allowed to ignore the law?
Congress’ 2012 mandate gave tolling agencies until October 2016 to comply with the law - but included no penalties for non-compliance.
Mica said he wanted to protect agencies in case they couldn’t physically accomplish their goals by 2016, but didn’t expect them to drag their feet so badly.
“I left Congress [in 2013], and there's been no one to enforce the law or to bring the hammer down on those that didn't cooperate with the intent of the law, which benefits everybody,” Mica said.
“It's not the only congressional mandate that is not paid attention to,” said Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), who indicated interoperability was low on Congress’ list of priorities. “It's just a matter of the computers talking to each other. It can be done. It [should be] pretty simple.”
Why can’t I pay cash on toll roads anymore?
Many states and toll agencies are going all-electronic to reduce highway slowdowns as well as their tollbooth-related expenses.
While the switch has created pockets of controversy across the country, tens of millions of drivers are able to conveniently travel toll roads using a transponder from their home state.
Tomlinson says many drivers never leave their toll pass’ home region, allowing them to use a single transponder for most trips - even as tollbooths disappear.
The transition may make your next interstate road trip more challenging, but it is considered a significant convenience for millions of commuters - even if it turns the decision to spend money driving a toll road into a less-than-deliberative routine.
“Drivers on the nation’s tolled roads, tunnels and bridges expect non-stop, reliable, safe and convenient travel,” wrote the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA) in 2019, as it touted the practical - and financial - benefits of all-electronic tolling (AET).
So, there’s no hope?
“I'm convinced that it won't take us another nine years,” Tomlinson said, pointing out that Georgia’s toll roads should begin accepting E-Z Pass transponders in the first half of 2022.
And Florida’s Turnpike Authority, which has been promising to achieve imminent interoperability since 2014, appears finally ready to join the E-Z Pass coalition in late 2021.
“By next year you'll be able to go from Maine to Florida using your toll (pass),” Tomlinson told NBCLX.
But Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, which have formed their own regional coalition, don’t appear particularly close to agreements with the East Coast groups. And California, Minnesota, Washington and a handful of other individual states all remain removed from the regional agreements as well.
It may not take another nine years for full national interoperability, but the process doesn’t appear likely to get a kickstart from Congress, either. There is no current legislation that would propose penalties for failure to comply with the 2012 bill.
“There is no reason in the world it shouldn't be interoperable by now,” Mica said. “We're looking at...almost a decade after I passed the legislation...my message to my old colleagues is just ‘get ‘er done.’”
UPDATE 5/28: The Florida Turnpike Authority announced interoperability with E-Z Pass, beginning May 28. Drivers with E-Z Pass transponders no longer need SunPass transponders to travel on most Florida toll roads, and SunPass customers who wish to use their transponders on E-Z Pass highways can upgrade to the "SunPass Pro," which will work on most toll roads from Florida to Maine, and West to Illinois.
Noah Pransky is NBCLX’s National Political Editor. He covers Washington and state politics for NBCLX, and his investigative work has been honored with national Murrow, Polk, duPont, and Cronkite awards. You can contact him confidentially at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.