No one loves to pay highway tolls, so it might come as a surprise that drivers on the motorways in and around Brisbane, Australia, had something to cheer about when new plans for an updated toll collection system were announced. However, this project held the promise of reduced congestion and safer conditions for the 250,000 vehicles traveling daily through the growing city’s most highly traveled areas, such as around the massive, 853-foot-long Gateway Bridge.
Drivers in Australia’s third-largest city spent 258 hours stuck in traffic in 2008, resulting in nearly AU$400 in extra fuel costs. (This data is based on the RACQ 2007 Travel Times survey along 16 major Brisbane roadways.*) Now, drivers are starting to get some breathing room on the area’s roadways since the Queensland government and Queensland Motorways Limited, the private company that manages some of Brisbane’s major toll roads and bridges, officially unveiled a project that went online in July 2009: a “smart highways” free-flow tolling system project that does away with toll booths altogether.
For a growing number of transportation officials, “smart highways” are a logical antidote to the traditional but expensive response to traffic: continually laying down more cement for new vehicle lanes. “You can’t keep building a wider and bigger infrastructure — you’ve got to find ways to make the roads more efficient and protect the environment by eliminating the stopping and starting of traffic at the toll plazas,” says Sue Caelers, Executive Manager of Transport Technology Solutions for Queensland Motorways.
A key part of the approach to move to intelligent transport systems for Queensland Motorways is a free-flow tolling project: a “Smarter Traffic” project led by IBM Global Business Services, which is supported by IBM hardware and underpinned by the SAP Business Suite — including SAP Customer Relationship Management (SAP CRM), SAP ERP Financials, and the SAP NetWeaver technology platform — along with optical character recognition (OCR) engines and IBM WebSphere technology.
With this new strategy for safer roadways, congestion around toll booths has been significantly reduced, fewer incidents are being reported, travel time has been reduced, and the new system is picking up traffic data more accurately than ever before.
Queensland Motorways Creates New — and Smarter — Highways
The drive for “smart highways” isn’t a phenomenon only in eastern Australia. Cities around the world have launched similar initiatives to keep pace with increased traffic volumes while also working to improve safety, reduce the strain of extended commutes on local economies, and lower emissions.
Backers of the Queensland effort expect to see a range of immediate and long-term answers to these challenges. They can already point to reduced congestion, with a related reduction in the accidents that had occurred when cars jockeyed in and out of the lanes leading up to the toll booths.
In the future, Brisbane plans to use the roadway’s network of sensors and sophisticated analytical software to watch for developing traffic problems and send real-time alerts to drivers so that they can take evasive action.
“Our roadside system reads transponders and automatically performs number plate recognition — so we know we’re tolling the right person.”
—Sue Caelers, Executive Manager of Transport Technology Solutions, Queensland Motorways
Out with the Old
The new free-flow tolling system was part of a AU$171 million project that represented a massive civil engineering and technology modernization undertaking. The project was aligned with the Gateway Upgrade Project to address growing traffic volumes and increasing traffic congestion. The Gateway Upgrade Project includes the construction of a second Gateway Bridge for vehicles, pedestrians, and bicyclists; refurbishing of the original Gateway Bridge; and upgrades and lane expansions of the improved Gateway Motorway. The free-flow tolling system plays a key role in providing intelligent transport solutions, which will ultimately reduce bottlenecks and improve efficiency.
The previous tolling system had used both cash and transponder lanes to collect fares at 47 toll booths in five locations along the motorway. But the 18 lanes on the Gateway Bridge still weren’t enough to handle peak traffic demands effectively. “The congestion we saw at peak hours was starting to stretch out almost all day,” Caelers says. This system resulted not only in slowdowns, but also in cars weaving dangerously into the three travel lanes that drivers used to exit the toll plaza.
Enter Free-Flow Tolling
Safety and efficiency improved when the toll booths were removed and replaced with free-flow tolling. Electronic equipment is now placed overhead across the roadways at regular intervals, identifying cars by their transponders or with an innovative video system that snaps pictures of license plates and enters the plate IDs into an automated billing system.
The implementation takes advantage of two OCR engines, one installed in the field and another connected to the toll system’s central application, Identification, Rating, and Interoperability Services (IRIS), developed by IBM, to process and communicate roadside data back to Queensland Motorways’ SAP systems for customer data and automatic billing against accounts. (See the sidebar to the right for more information on how IBM software, technology, and services played an integral part in this successful implementation.)
“Our roadside system reads the transponders, determines the vehicle class, and automatically performs number plate recognition through an OCR engine. That way, we know we are tolling the right person and have the correct charge,” Caelers says.Scanners measure the vehicle as it passes through the tolling point and create a three-dimensional model that is used to determine the size class of the vehicle for fee assessments.
With free-flow tolling, all drivers are covered: those who frequent the roadway install transponders, and other drivers can open an account and register their license plate IDs with Queensland Motorways so that the system automatically bills their accounts. Infrequent users can purchase a toll pass before or up to three days after driving on the highway — via the Web, by phone, or in person at a customer service center or one of more than 660 retail outlets.
IRIS communicates with the SAP CRM application, which stores registration records and other data about drivers and their vehicles — such as vehicle size and miles driven — to accurately determine the toll amount. The SAP ERP Financials solution receives the calculation results and generates bills for motorway users.
New Model and Technology Usher in Business Transformation
Free-flow tolling was more than just a technology upgrade for Queensland Motorways. “After being in business for 23 years as a cash tolling company, free-flow tolling and electronic revenue collections made this a business transformation project for us,” Caelers says.
The new back-office systems launched with SAP software replace a loose collection of legacy systems and are now integrated to work together cohesively. “The majority of our systems were disparate legacy solutions, and a lot of them were maintained by third parties,” says Doug Baker, the project manager for the implementation. “One of the outcomes we have achieved with this implementation is consolidation of solutions into a single solution.”
In addition to its accounts payable and receivable capabilities, Queensland Motorways now uses SAP ERP Financials to run other core financial processes, such as general ledger and purchasing. The SAP ERP Human Capital Management solution within SAP Business Suite enables new employee and manager self-service processing and payroll efficiencies.
The 400 or so staff members at Queensland Motorways use SAP CRM to access customer information, including license plate numbers. The application also triggers a sales and distribution module for issuing transponders to drivers.
The implementation involved other key pieces of SAP NetWeaver technologies: SAP NetWeaver Business Warehouse provides operational reporting within the Queensland Motorways business unit. To tie the applications together into an efficient whole, Queensland Motorways opted for two data integration layers: SAP NetWeaver Process Integration for the SAP environment and IBM WebSphere Application Server for the delivery of a self-service Web portal in which customers have access to important account information, as well as single sign-on for employees accessing IRIS, SAP applications, and the self-service portal.
Encouraging Early Results
Despite its ambitious goals, the civil engineering and IT modernization project went live in just 18 months, on schedule and within budget. Six months after the project’s launch, Queensland Motorways was still gathering statistics to quantify the results. But early data shows that a new roadway section north of the Gateway Bridge already cut travel time by 10 minutes — an improvement that Caelers calls “a big deal” for transportation measures, considering the economic and environmental benefits of getting commuters to their destinations more efficiently.
Queensland Motorways sees internal back-office improvements that are as clear as the efficiency gains on the roadways. “In some areas, it’s blatantly obvious where we’re getting improvements,” says Baker. For example, management approvals for purchase orders, employee leave, and transponder distributions are faster now that automated workflows for each have replaced the old manual processes.
According to Baker, an even bigger benefit is the consolidation of all the separate legacy systems into integrated, enterprise-wide operations. “Now, when we run the payroll, it goes straight through to the general ledger. That’s very important in terms of auditing and governance,” he explains.
The advantages of consolidation are especially apparent at the end of each month when Queensland Motorways completes invoice processing and closes its financial period. Finalizing the accounts previously took several weeks — sometimes even months — with the legacy systems.
What’s Down the Road?
Authorities now expect travel-time and accident statistics to improve steadily as the system provides better information for managing traffic volumes throughout the day. Using real-time information that the system provides about traffic congestion, Queensland Motorways is expanding its efforts to display alerts on roadway signs and adjust speed limits as necessary to match road conditions.
“Looking ahead, we have many ideas about how to tell people about the traffic conditions on the road they are traveling that day,” says Caelers. With the traffic data gathered by the system, Queensland Motorways can look at ways to alert individual drivers, perhaps via cell phones, to warn them about bottlenecks and accidents on their regular routes. “In the end,” she says, “our objective is to provide valuable information to our customers.”