At an IBM conference yesterday in Sydney, Queensland Motorways chief Phil Mumford said that an unexpected consequence of having successfully replaced cash toll booths with "free-flowing" electronic systems had been the creation of a pile of unpaid toll debt.
While the company expected some people not to pay their electronic tolling tab, Mumford stated that it hadn't anticipated the amount of debt would be so high: at one point it reached $20 million.
"That is a key aspect of our business and one part of the project that we probably didn't anticipate to get as high as what it is," he said.
According to Mumford, it was not so much about repeat offenders racking up thousands in unpaid tolls, but a massed sum of debts from a large amount of people.
"Of the $20 million in unpaid debt, the average debt is less than $50 per person," said Mumford, adding that it would be uneconomical to spend a hundred dollars to collect a debt under $50. Repeat offenders with larger debts will be brought into court.
Mumford said that Queensland Motorways' credit management staff would be looking at ways to combat payment evasion.
The unexpected debt has not dampened Mumford's enthusiasm for Queensland Motorways' new electronic tolls.
"Can we continue to invest billions of dollars into infrastructure? No, we can't, we need to start investing in new ways of using existing infrastructure," said Mumford, using the example of population growth in Queensland as a catalyst for these changes.
The organisation appointed IBM in 2008 to design, build and deploy a central tolling system to help Queensland Motorways ease traffic congestion occurring at cash toll booths.
Thirteen single entry free-flow gates were installed over five locations using resources from Thales, IBM and SAP. IBM's system uses roadside sensors and imaging technology (for licence plates) to carry out transactions, supported by an SAP customer relationship management database containing vehicle and owner information.
There are now no accidents around toll gates and traffic flow has been sped up by 20 per cent, according to Mumford. "Our very best toll collector could handle 350 toll vehicles per hour. An electronic lane can do over 2000 in an hour."
Mumford claimed that surveys had recorded large levels of customer satisfaction, and while the company had raised the tolls of its motorways by 30 per cent, it had not experienced a "tapering off of traffic and motorway use", which he also equated with customer satisfaction.
However, tolling wasn't the be all and end all of the $22 million project, which was completed last year. It was also supposed to provide more information to commuters, such as projected travel times.
There were multiple uses for the information provided by the system, according to Mumford. It could be used to suggest alternate routes to drivers and places to park, or could be used to provide real-time information to drivers via text message before they leave their house so they can take public transport if they wish.
The organisation is currently working with IBM to set up the necessary systems to make this possible.