Texas Turnpike now NTTA recognized as pioneer in transponder tolling HISTORY

May 28, 2007
A nice piece of brief retrospective journalism in USA Today May 20 recognizes electronic tolling as one of the 25 inventions that have changed our lives in the past quarter century. And it credits North Texas Tollway Authority, actually in its then manifestation, the Texas Turnpike Authority, for being the first major toll authority to adopt it.

Americans have loved and celebrated inventors from the beginning of this nation. It goes back to Benjamin Franklin and his lightning rod and cast iron stove designs, Thomas Jefferson and his amazingly modern housing innovations at Monticello VA, and George Washington's involvement in canal improvements and new cropping techniques, through steamboats, electricity, moving pictures, computer chips.

The piece called "25 years of 'eureka' moments says "We're a nation of inventors in garages and corporate labs, creating new gadgets and services that delight us and occasionally drive us crazy."

#1 invention is mobile phones, #2 laptop computers, #3 Blackberries, #4 debit cards, #5 caller ID, #6 DVDs, #7 lithium batteries, #8 iPods, #9 pay at the pump, #10 lettuce in a bag (gawd!), #11 digital cameras #12 doppler radar for weather, #13 flat panel TVs, #14 electronic tolls.

Electronic tolls is ahead of PowerPoint, microwave popcorn, Nike Air Jordans, online stock trading, Big Bertha golfclubs and disposable contact lenses.

The piece says of electronic tolls: "Throwing quarters in a tollbooth bin became a thing of the past when the North Texas Tollway Authority started its TollTag system in the Dallas area in 1989. Now, millions of commuters prepay tolls and rely on electronic gadgets attached to their cars to zip through toll plazas."

"We are honored that USA Today recognized the NTTA's implementation of electronic tolling as a''eureka moment'," Paul N Wageman, chairman of the NTTA board is quoted. "We are continuously looking for new and innovative solutions to enhance the NTTA customer experience. This 'eureka moment' is an example of NTTA's long-standing commitment to innovation and providing effective mobility solutions."

Of course the TTA/NTTA didn't invent electronic tolling, but they did have the courage to be the first in implementing it. Many others held back keen to be second or third.

Experimentation with large transponders for buses

Radio frequency identification at speed - the key technology for electronic tolling - was experimented with using a 420KHz underbody device from General Electric with the sinister name the Dezignator in 1972 on the Golden Gate Bridge. It was read from in-pavement antennas. Through the mid-1970s the leader in trials was the Port Authority NYNJ which did evaluations of three prototype electronic toll systems, most with the same low-mounted pavement read systems.

At this point the main application was thought to be on buses, allowing them to be identified to bypass toll gates. The transponders were brick sized and cost over $1,000 apiece.

Later in the 1970s the windshield mounted transponder became a potential electronic toll device with progress almost simultaneously in Sweden, Italy, the US and Canada.

In 1975 the Swede Bengt Henoch got a patent on a 10.2GHz battery powered RFID transponder, which later became the basis for PREMID, first Philips, then Combitech. The world's first supply of transponders to the public was in late 1987 when 2.45GHz passive backscatter PREMID tranponders were deployed on a new toll motorway outside Alesund Norway.

Origins in military

In the US a number of major defense equipment and aircraft companies including Hughes Aircraft and Texas Instruments developed transponders, the Hughes ones leading to the active time division multiplexing transponders used by trucks in the US and for tolling on 407ETR and on MnPass on I-394 to the ASTMv6 standard. The TI design was adopted in California and mandated under Title 21 of state law. The greater success in North America came from small startups - the companies that become Amtech/TransCore out of Albuquerque NM/Dallas/Harrisburg PA and Mark IV Toronto. Though Mark IV won the huge E-ZPass contracts in the mid-90s and has held them Amtech/TransCore made their mark first.

By some accounts the origins of ET technology go back to the development of air to air missiles with aircraft fighting beyond visual identification range and the need of air forces to gain technical help in minimizing "friendly fire" shootdowns. Systems were developed called Identify Friend or Foe (IFF) which installed in friendly planes responded with a distinctive code to a querying radio signal. If the pilot got the right response to his query signal it was a friend. If he didn't it was a likely enemy.

These radio frequency (RF) transponders were far too large and expensive for civilian use until the revolution in solid state semi-conductors allowed their minituarization and mass production from the late-60s onward. Such transponders in smaller form and at much shorter range could also be used to "tag" military stores and improve the logistics of keeping forces supplied with munitions, food, spares and other essentials of war. Out of such product tags were developed toll transponders.

By the early 1980s it was US government policy to encourage civilian use of technology developed in the Pentagon's National Laboratories. Out of Los Alamos NM came five scientists with expertise in RFID transponders who formed Amtech in Albuquerque.

An offer they couldn't refuse

Their tags were sufficiently developed to be adopted in the closed environment of freight railroads by the mid-1980s but they always foresaw the main application being in eliminating the need for cash handling on tollroads. Jerry Landt, the only one of the original five pioneers still at TransCore - he is chief scientist - recalls that the only way they could get transponders adopted by a toll authority was to offer the first one a no-risk/no-investment deal.

Late 1988 they made a presentation to the TTA (now NTTA) board in which Amtech would supply, install and operate all the electronic toll equipment at no cost to TTA on their then only tollroad the Dallas North Tollway.

Amtech registered TollTag as their trademark which it remains to this day. TTA/NTTA licenses the trademark from Amtech, now TransCore.

Amtech did advertising and promotion, issued transponders and established accounts, and billed and collected from customers. The contract gave the toll authority the right to discontinue electronic toll collection and ask for the removal of the Amtech equipment at any time, at no cost.

The first TollTag customers paid a 5c premium on tolls plus a monthly account fee which were Amtech's revenue stream. TTA's loops counted vehicles and cash toll transactions and Amtech paid TTA full toll for the difference - giving the company the incentive to minimize violations. Amtech set up cameras in each lane to read licence plate numbers of cars evading tolls.

The toll authority had the option to buy the toll equipment and take over the system later, which they exercised when it was so obviously a success.

As Jerry Landt recalls: "Amtech had everything at risk, including the financial investment in the system and the bad publicity if we failed....Tag sales started ahead of the opening date (early 1989). The sales of tags went faster than we expected. Somewhere around 60 lanes were installed, and tens of thousands of tags were soon in operation."

Initial hardware testing was done in New Mexico, mainly using parking lot tests and rural roads with little traffic. Testing was also done in Dallas, some of it on the tollway itself. They had been working on this for a couple of years and had done other tests in New York for the Port Authority, and were confident the system was robust and reliable. During tests a Turnpike staff vehicle carrying a transponder on its windshield caught fire in an accident and burned out completely. The transponder was badly deformed by the heat, but still worked.

The transponders used in the TTA/NNTA system are simple read-only passive backscatter 0.92GHz transponders with no battery. Many of the original issue in the late 1980s are still in use on the Dallas system.

Tests on the Dallas North Tollway (DNT) included some at high speed to prove that a vehicle could not avoid paying by driving fast. David Cooke, the lead investor did some of these demonstrations personally. He liked to drive fast.

The launch of electronic tolling was highly publicized. There were billboards, ads in the newspapers, handouts given at the toll plaza with Amtech staff handing out brochures, and lots of media coverage.

Landt recalls it that the launch was "a big deal," with reportage featuring the financial backing from celebrity capitalists Ross Perot and Blockbuster's David Cook.

He says bluntly: "If we had failed, that would have been the end of Amtech." And probably of electronic tolling for some years.

The launch was not without controversy, mostly surrounding the supposed invasion of privacy of the cameras and their link to the state motor registry database. That controversy passed once the system was up and running. Then its popularity became the story.

The violation system was used by the police to crack a serial crime case in which witnesses got description of a vehicle which regularly used the DNT. Amtech got subpoenas and searched the database of vehicles producing a short list of suspects. That was enough to crack the case, ending the crimes.

Crescent City Connection, Oklahoma followed quickly

Around the same time Amtech installed a similar system to Dallas North Tollway on the Crescent City Connection toll bridge over the Mississippi River, New Orleans. Oklahoma Turnpike followed - using passive transponders with supplemental battery power. Harris County also adopted these.

NTTA now has 1.2m transponders in use and they do nearly 80% of transactions. At Plaza #1 they have suspended cash collection entirely in order to improve traffic flow during construction. Motorists without transponders are video tolled - their license plates are read and they are sent a monthly toll bill in the mail. And there's a plan in development to make this the standard throughout the NTTA system. That needs a separate report.


1953 Texas Turnpike Authority created
1957 Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike opened
1968 Dallas North Tollway opened
1978 Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike I-30 detolled
1987 Dallas North Tollway Phase I Extension opened I-635 to Briargrove Lane
1989 Electronic TollTag system introduced on Dallas North Tollway
1994 Dallas North Tollway Phase II Extension opened Briargrove Lane to SH121 in Plano
1997 Oct, Texas Turnpike Authority transferred its assets to the new North Texas Tollway Authority
1998 President George Bush Turnpike Segment I opened Midway to Preston with first multi-lane highway speed electronic tolling down the middle
1999 Addison Airport Toll Tunnel opened
1999 Aug, toll discount for TollTag introduced for first time
1999 President George Bush Turnpike Segment IIa opened Coit to Campbell
2000 President George Bush Turnpike Segment IIb opened Campbell to SH78 in Garland)
2001 April Dallas North Toll Plaza #1 first retrofit of multilane highway speed electronic tolling following demolition of part of the old toll plaza by runaway dumpster truck Jan 30
2001 President George Bush Turnpike Segment III opened Midway Road to I-35E
2001 President George Bush Turnpike Segment V opened I-635 to Belt Line Road in Irving
2002 June, all mainline toll plazas now open road tolling through the middle following conversions at DNT #2 and #3
2003 NTTA Electronic TollTag system became interoperable with Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA)
2004 SH121 Interchange at the Dallas North Tollway and extension to Gaylord Parkway in Frisco opened
2005 Electronic TollTag system became interoperable with Dallas Love Field Airport
2005 Construction began on the 10-mile Dallas North Tollway Extension Phase 3 Gaylord Parkway to US 380 in Frisco
2005 Delayed President George Bush Turnpike missing gap Segment IV opened I-35E to I-635

TOLLROADSnews 2007-05-28

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