September 5, 2016 2:30 AM, EDT

Toll Management Companies Expand as Demand Increases

TT File Photo

This story appears in the Sept. 5 print edition of Transport Topics.

Longhaul truck drivers who transport freight nationwide must pay tolls in 28 states, which can be cumbersome and overwhelming with more than a dozen different tolling systems. But two companies offering a solution are seeing demand spike this year as a result.

Help Inc. and Bestpass Inc. are the main companies in the market.

Bestpass, part of the Trucking Association of New York, reports that it has more than 3,400 accounts covering 243,000 small, medium- and heavy-duty trucks in the United States. It announced a deal this spring to add Oklahoma, which resulted in a spike in demand to 4,000 new trucks added in the second quarter, up from about 1,000, according to CEO John Andrews.

“We open commercial accounts across the country with all the tolling agencies, and we manage those accounts for our customers, rather than them dealing with each state separately,” Andrews said.

Help Inc. is a public-private partnership serving the trucking industry and commercial enforcement. It offers qualified drivers an opportunity to bypass weigh stations with PrePass and PrePass Plus for electronic-toll payment. Chief Operating Officer Mark Doughty said more than 50,000 fleets and 550,000 medium- and heavy-duty trucks use the product, although the company does not disclose the exact number for the add-on tolling services.

“Our focus, first and foremost, is highway safety, so for those safe carriers we offer PrePass,” he said. “Then for those who also need tolling, they can add PrePass Plus toll service.”

To qualify, a carrier must have a good safety record and maintain current credentials such as International Fuel Tax Agreement and International Registration Plan. Bestpass does not have those requirements because it’s focused on tolling.

Bob Poole, the director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, said he believes both companies offer a valuable service because more toll facilities are popping up around the country.

“We have new roads and bridges being built that’ll have tolls, such as the Ohio River Bridges project between Kentucky and Indiana, and the Florida Turnpike expansion,” he said. “So the idea of having a transponder that works nationwide will be a big plus for time savings and using the expanded tolling network seamlessly.”

The previous way has been a long-standing problem that has been a drain on company resources. For example, if a longhaul driver were to travel from Oklahoma City to Dallas and to Miami, he could pass as many as four different tolling systems. Until recently, motor carriers had one of two options: Either let drivers pay cash and get reimbursed, or open up accounts in each state for the fleet.

For small or medium-size motor carriers, the overhead costs are significant.

Kottke Trucking Inc., which is based in Buffalo Lake, Minnesota, joined PrePass in 2015 and put transponders on its fleet of about 100 trucks.

“One trip through Chicago would mean seven to nine receipts, and when you multiply that by all of our trucks, it was dreadful. Some of the guys were doing that two to four times per week,” said Kyle Kottke, general manager. “So it went from sorting through all these paper receipts to looking at one PrePass statement. It went from hours to minutes of work. It’s like night and day.”

Nussbaum Transportation will be adding PrePass Plus to its fleet of 280 trucks in the next few months, said Chief Financial Officer Bill Wettstein. For now, the Hudson, Illinois, company asks drivers outside of the state to pay cash and submit paper receipts, but this solution will save them hours of work each month, too.

For owner-operators driving across the country without an office or payroll staff, it’s even harder to manage all of the paperwork. Chad Walworth, who hauls freight for Prime Inc., used to receive up to five different bills per month, but he joined Bestpass last year.

“We truck drivers are a unique breed. We’re not afraid of change, we’re just slow to adapt. But drivers are starting to realize the time savings are worth it,” Walworth said.

Prime ranks No. 18 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest U.S. and Canadian for-hire carriers.

Bestpass and PrePass estimate that they will process 20% to 25% more in tolls this year compared with 2015.

Bestpass oversaw $350 million in tolls last year and expects the number to be near $430 million this year.

Doughty would not disclose exact figures for PrePass.

For the states, there are also benefits. The Kansas Turnpike Authority accepts Bestpass and PrePass Plus because both have their own customer service staff to handle discrepancies, according to marketing and communications director Rachel Bell, adding that it offers an additional 5% discount because of savings on staffing.

Both companies charge a monthly service fee that, on average, is around $1.50 to $7 per month, depending on the size of the fleet and the amount of states covered with the transponder.

Bestpass and PrePass Plus work with the 15 E-ZPass states, plus FasTrak in California, SunPass in Florida, K-Tag in Kansas and PikePass in Oklahoma. The Texas TxTag recognizes only Bestpass.