The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This app will let you use your smartphone to pay tolls on a dozen Virginia roads

Empty express lanes on the Beltway.
Empty express lanes on the Beltway. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

You can now use your ­smartphone to pay to drive on Virginia’s toll roads if you don’t have an E-ZPass transponder.

GoToll, a new app by toll operator Transurban, gives drivers the choice of mobile payment while traveling on a dozen toll roads in the state, including the express lanes in Northern Virginia.

The app is the first of its kind in Virginia, which has significantly grown its network of toll roads in the past decade. Similar apps across the country offer drivers the option to check toll rates and make payments, generally after taking the trip. Industry leaders say they anticipate apps such as GoToll, which can essentially replace a toll transponder such as E-ZPass, may be the future of tolling.

“Mobile apps to pay tolls are here and certainly will grow in the near future,” said Bill Cramer, a spokesman for the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, which represents toll facility owners and operators.

Toll operators across the country are looking into developing their own apps, said Cramer, who estimates it will be another year or two before real growth is seen in mobile payments by individual toll operators.

Poll: Washington-area residents widely oppose paying a toll to drive into downtown D.C.

Transurban, which operates the Express Lanes on ­Interstates 95, 395 and 495 in Northern Virginia, launched the app last month, targeting travelers who aren’t frequent toll-road users and don’t have an E-ZPass. According to a company survey, about 25 percent of drivers in the Washington region don’t have a transponder.

Elisa Bell, director of mobile technology at Transurban, said the app gives those people a choice to enter a toll lane without fear of receiving a bill for a hefty fee in the mail.

Because most facilities in the state are cashless and operate without toll stations, anyone using them needs a transponder to pay. Motorists who use some of the most popular facilities, including the 95 Express Lanes, face a penalty of $12.50 per trip. (The fee is waived for first-time offenders, and anyone who pays electronically within five days of the trip pays a $1.50 fee per trip, plus the toll.)

GoToll users are charged a fee of 85 cents for each trip, in addition to the toll.

The app is available for Apple and Google platforms; users add their license plate and credit card information to register their vehicle. Then, when they drive through cashless toll facilities, the toll is automatically deducted. Unlike the E-ZPass transponder, which requires a $35 deposit, that goes toward toll payments, GoToll charges users per trip. And your phone doesn’t have to be on the dashboard for the app to work; once a car is registered, the toll will be charged automatically.

“Drivers get that quick option to use a toll road even if they don’t have an E-ZPass account,” Bell said. “Not everyone has an E-ZPass, but most people have cellphones.”

The company says it expects to bring the app to other markets nationwide.

Md. to end cash option on Bay Bridge, inching closer to statewide automated toll system

As toll roads expand across the country, operators envision a future with a more modern payment system that isn’t based on the use of transponders, which aren’t compatible across different toll platforms. Smartphones could be the answer, some industry and transportation leaders say.

Some states and toll operators are already taking steps to modernize their systems. Maryland, for example, is transitioning to cashless tolling and making changes that include the development and launch of a mobile app.

Toll facilities in Southern California, North Texas and Kansas, among others, offer mobile apps, which generally allow toll users to manage their accounts, view transactions and make payments. But those are simply mobile versions of their online services and don’t replace the need for a transponder such as E-ZPass, SunPass, E-Pass or FasTrak.

That could change as the industry continues to grow and responds to demands from drivers who aren’t fond of transponders, want more flexibility and prefer the ease that mobile apps provide.

Transurban’s GoToll answers a demand from Virginia toll road users. Company research found that a great majority — 80 percent — of Washington-area drivers surveyed are interested in a mobile app to pay for tolls. Sixty percent want to see real-time toll price information and 65 percent said they are likely to increase toll road use if they could pay using a mobile app.

“The future is about giving people multiple options to pay for things, in a way that makes sense for them,” Bell said. “This gives drivers the power of paying for tolls from the palm of their hands.”

The app works on a dozen toll roads. In Northern Virginia: The express lanes on Interstates 395, 95, 495 and 66, and on the Dulles Toll Road but not the Dulles Greenway. In the Hampton Roads region: The 64 Express Lanes, Chesapeake Expressway, George P. Coleman Bridge, South Norfolk Jordan Bridge, Dominion Boulevard and the Elizabeth River Tunnels (midtown and downtown).

Maryland and Virginia to rebuild and widen the American Legion Bridge, governors say

Work advances on 66 Express Lanes outside the Capital Beltway

Group of corporate heavyweights pushes for regional toll network