You can’t use your SunPass north of Raleigh, North Carolina … even though there’s a federal law that says you should be able to. Similarly, northern tourists who drive down with an E-ZPass, the most popular electronic tolling transponder in the nation, can’t use it on Florida’s toll roads, either.
It may seem like the inability to use your electronic transponder while driving up the East Coast is the least of your problems after 12 months of SunPass account nightmares. But the Florida Department of Transportation is years behind where it should be on “interoperability” — the ability to use your SunPass in other states, and Northern visitors’ ability to use E-ZPass in Florida.
Congress passed the “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act” in 2012, mandating all toll agencies be interoperable by October 2016. In 2014, the CEO of the Florida Turnpike Enterprise (FTE), Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, told state Senators, “Florida will be ready very shortly to be able to accept an E-ZPass transponder in its lanes.”
So why the heck aren’t we there yet?
Largely because Congress never put any teeth in the law, and Florida is among many states not bothering to break a deadlock on how to merge multiple tolling technologies.
SunPass is accepted in just three states currently: Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. E-ZPass is accepted in 18 states.
E-ZPass so ubiquitous and efficient, rapper Pitbull even dropped it into his 2016 song, “Greenlight,” even as he was being paid by VISIT FLORIDA to promote Florida tourism.
FLORIDA WAS SO CLOSE
According to FDOT insiders, the state was on the verge of a partial E-ZPass interoperability deal several years ago, but Gutierrez-Scaccetti pulled the plug.
She explained herself during a January 2015 Senate committee hearing (see 58:00 mark here), saying Florida could make life more convenient for E-ZPass holders by starting to accept their transponders, but “E-ZPass has no interest in accepting SunPass” and she wanted to preserve “leverage” in negotiations.
But it wasn’t customers with anything to lose with the agreement; it was the interests behind SunPass who were apparently concerned about losing market share.
“If we want our residents to not feel that they have to abandon their SunPass and get an E-ZPass,” she continued, “we need to get those … states to agree.”
Neither Gutierrez-Scaccetti nor FTE/FDOT executives made themselves available for interviews on this story.
Gutierrez-Scaccetti’s concerns didn’t stop the Central Florida Expressway Authority (CFX) from reaching an agreement with E-ZPass.
CFX sells an E-PASS, which is similar to — and compatible with — a SunPass transponder. Last fall, the agency debuted its E-PASS Xtra, which also has E-ZPass technology built in, so drivers can cruise up and down the East Coast — and all the way west to Illinois — with a single transponder.
TECHNOLOGY & MONEY
Even before its SunPass nightmare with contractor Conduent, Florida didn’t want to go through the trouble and cost of overhauling its toll technology and infrastructure on its own dime. Other states didn’t want to either, which is likely why Congress didn’t include penalties in its mandate.
Doing what CFX has done with its E-PASS Xtra, and including both technologies, costs money too. That’s why FDOT hasn’t prioritized the project, according to Neil Gray, public affairs director for the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA):
“Interoperability is not a huge business issue for the toll agencies; 99 percent of cars that pass through tolls use your technology,” Gray said. “Consumers have great reason to want (interoperability), but it’s not a convenience for the agencies … the business case is kind of weak.”
POLITICS & MONEY
On toll roads in Florida alone, millions of dollars a day flow instantly from drivers’ accounts to the state’s.
Electronic tolling is a lucrative business, especially for the few contractors who dominate the industry.
When Gutierrez-Scaccetti told senators she didn’t want Floridians to “abandon their SunPass and get an E-ZPass,” she may as well have been speaking on behalf of Florida’s influential contractors, who have a lock on SunPass technology, but not E-ZPass technology.
While a one-size-fits-all E-ZPass might be more convenient for Florida drivers, any shift away from SunPass could cost the private companies enormous amounts of money.
Ironically, hordes of Florida drivers have shifted away from SunPass anyway, favoring CFX’s E-PASS, after FDOT and FTE botched their June 2018 SunPass system upgrade.
FDOT isn’t just protecting its contractor’s product; it’s also been soft on accountability.
Agency insiders say FDOT’s transponder vendor has failed to do its part in moving interoperability forward, but FDOT hasn’t taken any action to force the issue, either.
Apparently, “please” isn’t enough to prompt a fix on interoperability.
It’s a similar theme to FDOT’s lack of accountability in the seemingly-never-ending SunPass saga, where it took nearly a year for the state to fine its primary contractor implicated in the technological meltdown.
There has been no discipline for the two engineering firms or the current FTE executive who oversaw a series of mistakes that created a year’s worth of customer service nightmares. Those mistakes are also likely to cost the state tens of millions of dollars.
IS THERE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL?
With a new FDOT secretary and a new governor in place, Florida may be motivated to reach interoperability faster; every day that goes by without it means revenue lost.
Instead of allowing tourists and snowbirds to cruise effortlessly through Florida’s toll roads with their E-ZPass, drivers must stop and pay at each tollbooth. Or, in the case of all-electronic roads, drivers get a not-so-friendly Florida souvenir in the mail in the form of a bill, sometimes months later, for tolls they may not even remember incurring. These charges are tougher for the state to collect, so the lack of interoperability means real losses of dollars.
IBBTA’s Gray says Florida may only be 18 months away from adding three more interoperable states: Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas.
However, E-ZPass interoperability may take longer.
Unlike SunPass, which is operated by FDOT and FTE, E-ZPass is a coalition made up of dozens of agencies. Gray says addressing the technology is easy compared to the business rules and legislation that are required to get 39 tolling agencies in 16 states moving in the same direction.
He says it may take vehicle manufacturers embedding technology directly into cars to force all of the tolling coalitions to adopt a single standard.
Nevertheless, CFX navigated the potential land mines and brought its E-PASS Xtra to market in about 18 months. A CFX spokesperson said the agency might be able to help FDOT in its interoperability efforts.