Industry News

Q&A: IBTTA President Samuel Johnson discusses tolling industry's coronavirus response

The coronavirus pandemic has placed many industries in uncharted waters, including the tolling industry. In this Q&A, Samuel Johnson, 2020 president of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association and chief operations officer for the Transportation Corridor Agencies in Orange County, Calif., discusses how the industry is responding to the challenges of the pandemic and the need to protect employees and customers.

The coronavirus pandemic has placed many industries in uncharted waters, the tolling industry included. How have you seen toll facility owners and operators respond?

Every tolling agency is first and foremost a part of the community it serves, so our members’ top priority is to do whatever they can to help customers and employees stay safe and stay well through this unprecedented time. As soon as the pandemic was declared, we saw a wave of announcements regarding teleworking, closures of walk-in customer service centers to keep both employees and the public safe, and for most toll operators with electronic toll collection (ETC) the suspension of cash collection, all to curb the spread of the virus. In local communities, we are seeing toll operators like the Delaware River & Bay Authority donate personal protective equipment to support health care workers who are on the front lines of this war. We are also seeing toll operators — such as The Kansas, Ohio and Pennsylvania turnpikes; the Central Florida Expressway in Orlando, Fla.; State Road and Tollway Authority in Atlanta, Ga.; and Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority in Austin, Texas, to name a few — thanking, honoring and recognizing these health care professionals on digital message boards along highways and at toll plazas and service areas.

Toll operators have been flexible in their responses to coronavirus concerns. What can you tell us about the role of cashless toll payments in preventing the spread of the coronavirus?

It’s far too early to have any data. But our public health professionals are telling us that personal distancing and hand-washing are among our best tools to #FlattenTheCurve and slow the spread of this deadly virus. When cash is exchanged from hand to hand, we cant maintain social distancing, so we can’t control or foresee whether it passes to or from someone who is infected, and they may not even know it if they’re asymptomatic. Cash is not the only vector for transmission, but we can do our part by reducing the collection of cash and ensuring that if toll collectors are handling cash, all safety precautions are in place in this period of time.

How are industry members balancing the need for staff with the goal of keeping workers safe?

We need to achieve both, to the very best of our ability. That begins with achieving social distancing through teleworking when possible, spacing out workers within facilities or temporarily changing processes. Safety also means keeping our facilities open and in good working order for users who depend on them. Our people and roadways, bridges and tunnels serve as a lifeline.

When our employees go to work, we want to be sure they have what they need — both the knowledge and the ability to keep the standard six-foot distance from anyone else, easy and frequent access to hand-washing stations, and personal protective equipment if they need it. What we have learned from this pandemic is that we need to be creative and inventive to keep everyone safe, especially in cases in which we provide direct service to the public, such as walk-in customer service centers, toll plaza and service areas. Toll operators across the country and around the world are responding quickly by implementing more intensive hygiene procedures and social distancing as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What further challenges do you expect for the industry as the coronavirus pandemic continues?

Like other industries, we are watching, listening, learning and adapting to the breadth of this pandemic, which is more impactful than anything we have seen in our lifetimes. We owe it to our communities, our employees, their families and all our other stakeholders to deploy all our creativity, resilience and capacity for innovation to the job of defeating the virus and reversing its devastating human toll and adverse economic impact.

We do know two things: that digging out after the period of isolation ends will require every funding tool available, and we are already having constructive conversations about what the future of our industry may look like. That includes discussion of funding a major push on surface transportation and other infrastructure at the federal level to get America back to work once it’s truly safe to do so. Tolling agencies are masters at the task of delivering financing for projects that couldn’t otherwise be built. It’s too soon to deliver on that conversation — right now, we all have to stay home, stay safe and #FlattenTheCurve — but when the time is right, we’ll be ready.

IBTTA has created a webpage dedicated to helping industry members navigate these difficult times. What resources can people expect to find there?

The page consolidates the latest and most relevant pandemic information for toll operators, ideas and best practices submitted by IBTTA members, and links to IBTTA news and other resources. We’re encouraging everyone in the industry to bookmark the page and check back regularly. You can view the webpage here: Tolling Industry Response to Coronavirus.

What are other steps IBTTA is taking to facilitate communication with its members during these difficult times?

Communication is key. We are staying in constant contact with our members. Each week, we host Zoom videoconferencing sessions with our members, to take the pulse of the industry and share information among agency executive directors and private sector partners. I have been impressed and deeply moved by the constructive, supportive tone of those calls. The big takeaway was that we are all in this together, and together, we and our customers and employees will get through it. Moving though this long process, we must be practical, hopeful, smart and caring.

IBTTA is engaged in providing a continuous stream of information to our members through the daily IBTTA SmartBrief, social media, blogs, Zoom videoconferencing, and more frequent “Connection” email newsletters to ensure that no member faces this crisis alone. The association is responding to a higher number of member requests for information and data. Our data visualization tool, TollMiner, is proving yet again to be a valuable resource for members. Together, IBTTA and the industry are communicating ideas, strategies and plans so members have the best information to move forward.

Is there anything in addition that you’d like to say to members of the tolling industry?

We are all in this together! Stay safe. Stay healthy. Stay home. Wash your hands and #FlattenTheCurve.