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Deal to use MnPASS in other states still elusive

ST. PAUL -- October was supposed to have brought a present for Minnesota's 33,945 MnPASS users: compatibility with toll systems in other states. That would mean Minnesotans driving to Kansas, the East Coast or Chicago could have breezed through t...

ST. PAUL - October was supposed to have brought a present for Minnesota’s 33,945 MnPASS users: compatibility with toll systems in other states.

That would mean Minnesotans driving to Kansas, the East Coast or Chicago could have breezed through those states’ open-road tolling booths as if they were locals, instead of pulling over to pay manually or retroactively paying online.

But the federal government’s October deadline for states to synchronize their toll systems came and went with no action. So even though MnPASS is finally technologically ready to sync with I-PASS, FasTrak and other toll systems, inter-operability remains years down the road. For now, a MnPASS transponder only provides drivers access to the Twin Cities’ express lanes.

The problems A number of private companies offer technology for open-road toll systems, whether for full toll roads like Illinois’ or high-occupancy lanes like MnPASS. But these companies largely use different technologies that can’t communicate with each other.

On top of the technological barrier is an administrative one: toll agencies need to strike deals to access other systems’ customer accounts.

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In both areas, Minnesota faced an uphill battle to connect its users with other systems. Technologically, it uses a relatively obscure system from a company called Telematics Wireless. And administratively, MnPASS is a small fry. There are just 33,945 MnPASS customers compared to 6 million for Florida’s SunPass, 3 million for California’s FasTrak, 4 million for Texas’ TxTag and 25 million for the 16-state E-ZPass standard that includes Illinois.

“One of the challenges we face is there’s very little demand from outside of Minnesota to use our MnPASS system,” said Brad Larsen, the MnPASS Policy & Planning Program Director for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

But there is considerable demand from Minnesotans to be able to use MnPASS transponders when traveling around the country.

The I-PASS system has about 91,000 customers with Minnesota addresses - more than 2.5 times the number of MnPASS customers.

Larsen said MnDOT wants “to give our customers something that a lot of them would like: to be able to use their MnPASS tag in Chicago without having to get an I-PASS tag and account as well.”

Obstacles and alternatives The nation’s tolling networks continue attempts to negotiate an inter-operability deal despite missing the federal government’s October deadline.

One big obstacle: an agreement would have “winners and losers,” the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association writes.

“The losers, and their customers, would have to pay millions of dollars to replace technology that still does what it’s supposed to do,” the toll operator association article said.

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MnPASS has already made some of these upgrades. While MnPASS’ old equipment worked only on a single frequency, its readers are now capable of reading multiple types of tolling tags. But while MnPASS is capable of reading other systems, those systems may not be capable of reading MnPASS.

Minnesota could also strike deals with agencies such as the Illinois Tollway for a workaround - for example, letting Illinois use its license plate readers to collect tolls from MnPASS users. This would have costs which could “be premature and costly, given the eventual development of national inter-operability,” Illinois Tollway spokesman Dan Rozek said in an email.

That national deal, if it comes, could solve the problem.

In the meantime, Minnesotans who want to pass through other states’ tolls without extra transponders can sign up for a third-party product such as NATIONALPASS, which works with multiple networks.

“The problem is these different inter-operable options generally are going to cost the customer a little more,” Larsen said. “Sometimes that won’t be a barrier, sometimes that will.”

Related Topics: TRANSPORTATION
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