Thursday 3 November 2011

Puerto Rico success in converting to electronic free flow tolling

I've written before about the privatisation of Puerto Rico's toll roads with Goldman Sachs and Abertis, and the plans to transform the territory's toll roads through improved maintenance and service standards.  The two roads involved are Highways 5 and 22. 

Businesswire writes about the success so far in introducing electronic free flow technology to two publicly owned highways.  PR-52 and PR-53.  The Puerto Rico Highway and Transportation Authority contracted Transcore as system supplier.

The PR-52 north to south arterial highway linking San Juan with Ponce, which includes five toll plazas, and PR-53 linking the south and east coasts of the island, with three toll plazas, were part of phase I of the project and were the first to transition. Previously rush hour wait times at high traffic toll plazas ranged from 15 to 20 minutes or more. Now motorists can pass through those same toll plazas at highway speeds, reducing some commute times by up to 45 minutes.

An obvious benefit of removing manual tolls.  Although the report indicated not only that cash lanes were converted to electronic free flow but new lanes were added for free flow - which honestly seems a little odd - true electronic free flow at highway speeds need no more lanes than the road has itself.

The project for conversion cost US$26 million and is branded AutoEspreso, starting with ETC lanes in 2004, and is expected to be completed by mid 2012.  Current ETC market share is 70% across all toll roads.

A key issue, much neglected, is how to deal with the "unbanked" population - people without bank accounts.  45% of the population of Puerto Rico is without a bank account, so 55% of motorists top up their toll accounts with cash over the counter.   Not the traditional direct debit/credit card model elsewhere, demonstrating the need for cash payment to be addressed.   Another innovation is ILR (In Lane Replenishment) allowing motorists to set up accounts on the spot with cash or credit/debit cards, or to top up their accounts (this might explain the "extra lanes" which are not exactly free flow, but provide essentially a retail outlet at the gantry).

The report indicates operational cost savings of US$2-US$3 million p.a. (presumably by eliminating manual toll collection) and reduced "leakage" (people getting free passage by toll booth collectors and thieving from toll takings) of US$10-US$20 million p.a..  I'm astonished that rather simple steps to address this are not being taken already.

Good on Puerto Rico for moving ahead on free flow technologies, especially at congested sites.  The scope for more such conversions is considerable, but the great lessons learned about Puerto Rico are around understanding the local market.  However, it's important to bear in mind the report was largely based on a press release from TransCore, it will be interesting to see any reports based on experiences of the public in Puerto Rico and perceptions of how they see service standards.

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