E-ZPass Electronic Toll Collection Comes to Minnesota

Nationwide Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) Interoperability has been an elusive goal for some time. In practical terms that would mean you’d be able to use your MnPASS transponder to pay tolls on a road trip to Chicago or in your rental car in Florida, and in turn, residents of those states would be able to use their IPass and Epass to pay tolls on the MnPASS express lanes. There was, in fact, a 2012 mandate for nationwide interoperability by 2016. In 2015 MnPASS was still interoperable with no other states, so I wrote an article about the status of things. The deadline has long come and gone, but I recently noticed that MnDOT has announced their intention to become interoperable with the E-ZPass network as of summer 2021, so it’s time for an update.

Introduction to Electronic Toll technology

Electronic tolling is the idea that you can use a toll road or toll lane without stopping at a toll booth to pay cash; instead a transponder in your car communicates with an overhead reader on the highway and tells it to deduct the amount of the toll from the account you have set up. Originally these transponders were “active” – having batteries and electronic circuitry – and thus were relatively expensive for the agencies to buy. In the early 2000s there were a number of different active systems out there, but gradually states in the Northeast and lower Midwest have joined the E-ZPass network.

An EZPass Transponder
E-ZPass Transponder. (Photo: Mikeetm )

E-ZPass was originally a consortium of the toll agencies in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. These three agencies consisted of two-thirds of the U.S toll industry, so nearby states were motivated to join up by linking computer billing systems and if necessary, switching protocols. Some agencies maintain their own branding – Illinois State Toll Highway Authority calls theirs “IPass” for example – but henceforth I’m going to refer to the entire network as “E-ZPass”.

Meanwhile, states like Minnesota that were isolated from the E-ZPass block saw no need to be interoperable, and thus chose their own active technology. Minnesota (and Washington) used a system from an Israeli company called Advanced Telematics. The southern states tended to use Transcore, and California had its own standard, commonly called Title 21. Following this first generation of active transponders, newer technology was introduced in the form of passive RFID sticker tags. Although the readers are slightly more expensive, the transponders issued to motorists are much, much cheaper, essentially just a sticker with an antenna, a capacitor, and one chip as opposed to an active electronic device. Originally the standard was ISO 18000 6B (commonly called “SeGo” as branded by one of the companies that added proprietary security enhancements to it), then ISO 18000 6C.

States other than the E-ZPass group that introduced electronic toll technology, or switched protocols, as Minnesota was doing at the time of the last article, tended to use SeGO or 6C. (I saw a request for proposals for a 6C system, so in the prior version of my tolling technology map, I coded it as such, but a MnDOT person I subsequently spoke with indicated that they actually went with SeGo.) The large E-ZPass group shows no sign of switching to one of the newer, passive sticker tags, so we still have three completely different toll systems out there.

MNPass Tag
MnPass passive tag. Although appearing to have an electrical switch, all it does is slide the RFID chip into a shielded compartment so it can’t be read if you’re a carppol. (Photo: MnDOT)

There are benefits to active transponders – they can beep to let the driver know a toll was read and paid, and the one formerly used by Maine would even display the account balance on a digital readout. But I think the barrier to E-ZPass switching is more bureaucracy, trying to get all those now dozen or so agencies to agree on something.

Here are simplified maps of the toll technologies in use at the time of my original article and today.

Us Toll Systems 2015 Png
Image: Author
Image: Author

Barriers to Interoperability

Interoperability requires two components: first, there has to be an actual agreement between agencies linking computer systems. Second, there has to be a common protocol. I’m not an expert in computer systems, but I’m assuming the main obstacle is just finding the funding and political will to link all the dozens of different systems around the country together. Instead, I’ll focus on the protocol issue.

Things were still a mess in 2015, with seven different protocols in use. Today, except for Alabama and a few isolated bridges that still use RFID proximity cards, and thus really aren’t electronic tolling in the sense that you can drive through a gantry without stopping, there are now only three. This is significant because gantry readers that can read up to three different protocols exist.

Usa Toll Interoperability 2015 Png
Image: Author
Usa Toll Interoperability 2020 Png
Image: Author

A number of states, including Minnesota, have installed multi-channel readers as part of their plan to switch to newer protocols (as well as for future interoperability) The idea is to have an orderly phase-out of the old transponders by having equipment that can read both the old and new protocols.

Changes since 2015

Back in 2015, the toll agencies in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, which have always used compatible equipment, were in the process of linking their systems together. That is now fully completed except for the city-owned Laredo international bridges. Interestingly, there was talk about the Texas / Kansas / Oklahoma block linking with Florida, which also used SeGo, but that apparently has stalled. The biggest push is for Florida and E-ZPass to link up, but talks have been going on for years without a clear path forward.

The main issue is that E-ZPass has gotten big enough that smaller agencies have no negotiating power. And most of the E-ZPass block have single-channel readers that can only read their own protocol, TDM, meaning they can’t accept Florida’s or Minnesota’s SeGo, and there’s been no encouragement from the group for agencies to install multi-mode readers on new or renovated projects. What’s more, many E-ZPass facilities have actual barriers that don’t lift unless a toll is paid on the spot. This precludes any sort of back-end “toll by plate” scenario where a photo of the license plate of passing cars without a TDM transponder is taken, and later matched to a valid account from another state for billing.

As a result, states that want to be compatible with E-ZPass are left with no choice but to issue active transponders that can do TDM, despite the added cost. North Carolina is doing so, and the Central Florida Expressway Authority has also started. When tolls were introduced on the Louisville area bridges, they of course wanted to be on E-ZPass, but from the start they also issued 6C stickers for locals that aren’t interested in using it on the E-ZPass network. Interestingly, South Carolina and Toronto use TDM equipment but show no inclination to link with E-ZPass.

Minnesota Joins E-ZPass

MnDOT is in the same dilemma as the Florida agencies. So once again, MnDOT will be issuing expensive active transponders, this time with the TDM protocol, to all new customers, and any existing customers that want one. I believe it’s likely these will be the same commercially-available dual-mode SeGo/TDM model that can be turned off when carpooling in an express lane that North Carolina issues. It’s unknown if there will again be a purchase or monthly charge for the much more expensive active transponders. North Carolina charges $7.49 plus tax for a dual-mode transponder (you can go to the website to virtually switch if off for carpooling) or $16.49 for one with a physical switch, the “flex” model. Like Minnesota, if you just want a sticker for non-E-ZPass use, it’s free.

NC Quickpass
NC Quickpass dual mode SeGo / TDM transponder (Photo: NC DOT)

I asked MnDOT why they’re making this transition now, as opposed to 5 years ago or 5 years from now, but I didn’t really get an answer. Five years ago, the response I got could be fairly characterized as “we’re ready when the federal government makes us.” Perhaps they decided that with the ongoing requests to be able to use it in Chicagoland, combined with the lull in interest locally due to the pandemic, it was time.

Until now I’ve never owned a MnPASS. Personally, I do not favor highway tolls. Like all user fees, sales taxes and the like, they’re inherently regressive, impacting the poor more than the rich. It makes no sense that governments build things like freeways, transit, and state parks that benefit society and then discourage society from using them by charging for them at the point of use. And in many cases, promises were made to the residents of states that tolls would be removed when the construction bonds were paid off. Kentucky kept their promise. Illinois and most other states broke their promise.

But my main reasons for not having an MnPASS aren’t philosophical; I just have no real use for it. I don’t like driving in traffic and then paying for parking. I’ve been able to avoid having to take a job downtown – I’ve always taken jobs in suburban office parks and now mainly telework. But now that I could use MnPASS on road trips to Chicago or when I rent a car in Florida, I’m likely to get one. Having to pay $50+ in inflated toll charges to the rental company for driving a rental car from Miami to the Keys because the Florida’s Turnpike Extension wouldn’t take cash was just galling to me. The Northeast, where I also travel from time to time, is also starting to go cashless, and soon my travels there would have become an issue without a compatible electronic pass. But not anymore.

About Monte Castleman

Monte is a long time "roadgeek" who lives in Bloomington. He's interested in all aspects of roads and design, but particularly traffic signals, major bridges, and lighting. He works as an insurance adjuster, and likes to collect maps and traffic signals, travel, recreational bicycling, and visiting amusement parks.

10 thoughts on “E-ZPass Electronic Toll Collection Comes to Minnesota

  1. John Maddening! (@johnmaddening)

    That’s cool, I never generally use the HOV lanes unless I’ve got someone else in my car (living in the city helps), but I have an Illinois box already for our trips to Chicago that I just leave in the window. I’ll have to remember to take it off when we’re not down there.

  2. Justin H

    I have an EZPass from when I lived in New York. Does that mean I’ll be able to use it here… :waves-hands: at some point in the future?

  3. Erik RuthruffErik R

    So the money collected from these gets collected and applied to that state’s road maintenance? If that’s how it works, I’m all for that.

  4. Sheldon Gitis

    Interesting to know about the different gizmos competing for the Highway Department dollars, but I think the article ignores the abysmal failure that the looney HOV/toll lanes have been, at least locally. As I recall, the 394 boondoggle, that created 3 of the worst bottlenecks in the State the day it opened, was the original looney-laned project in Minnesota. And ever since it opened, MnDOT has continued pouring money down the 394 drain in a futile attempt to fix the mess it created. As everyone knows, and no one should be surprised, the fixes, whether screwball “zipper lanes” or maniacal overhead signage or outrageously expensive and soon obsolete vehicle spying “transponder” systems, are never an improvement, and inevitably result in spending more money fixing the mess that the previous “fix” only exacerbated. Rather than giving us the lowdown on all the latest and greatest toll road technology, maybe you could fill us in on the money spent thus far on the MnPASS/HOV/transponder system “fixes” and the toll revenue collected as a result. My guess is the cost of the MnPASS/HOV/transponder system technology has thus far far surpassed any revenue that the technology has generated.

  5. Eric

    It will be interesting to see how MN’s transponder fees compare to other states. Even though I live in MN I already have a Massachusetts transponder, MA charges no annual fees, and even mailed a transponder to MN for free. I find it totally worth it for occasional road trips.

  6. Jeb Rach

    I remember seeing the announcement back in 2019, so I don’t think it’s specifically related to the pandemic.

    I’ll be interested to see how well interoperability works for people visiting Minnesota who have existing EZ-Pass transponders, and how the signage will communicate that. I’d imagine the readers are good enough to detect which lane someone is in, but it’d be quite the surprise if someone from out-of-state used that lane (maybe with multiple people in the car) and didn’t realize that they were being charged because it sensed their transponder from out-of-state and they didn’t have HOV mode on.

  7. Justin Bodie

    I own three tolling devices for when I travel – MnPass, IPass (EZ Pass) for Illinois and SunPass for Florida. Sure would be nice to just have one!

  8. Monte Castleman Post author

    As several commentators have noted, other E-ZPass agencies have no fees and are more than willing to send transponders to out-of-state residents. So there will be nothing stopping someone from Minnesota from getting say a Massachusetts transponder and then using it here if Minnesota decides they’re going to charge a fee to get a transponder locally. The main drawbacks to doing so are lack of local walk-in service, and most agencies there is no switch on the device itself to disable it for use in carpool mode- to avoid being charged a toll as a carpool you would have to remove the device from your windshield and either take it out of your car and put it in a shielded bag.

  9. Scott Walters

    I read somewhere that there are more I-pass users registered in Minnesota than users of the MnPass. I have an I-pass, and use it when I travel for work all over the eastern US. Way cheaper than the rental car scam.

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