Carma offers discounted rates on Toll 183A

Drivers of Toll 183A and the 290 Manor Expressway are eligible for toll reimbursements through a pilot program organized by the Texas Department of Transportation, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority and international transportation technology company Carma.

The Texas A&M University Transportation Institute is overseeing the test of a smartphone app that uses real-time ridesharing technology to verify vehicle occupancy and the effects of toll discounts on carpooling behavior. The nearly $1 million program is funded through a federal value pricing grant.

Carma Austin Community Manager Lauren Albright said similar programs in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., have been successful in connecting people who are traveling to the same area.

"Through the mobile app, we can connect people with others nearby—say neighbors or coworkers—that have similar commute routes and schedules," Albright said. "The goal of Carma is to connect people who could be sharing a ride but don't necessarily know each other. We want to put people's empty seats to good use and cut congestion on roads and highways."

To participate, the driver and riders must connect using the Carma smartphone app. Once the driver provides Carma with the vehicle's TxTag account, GPS technology in the app allows CTRMA to count the number of people in the vehicle and give a reimbursement. Tolls are halved with two occupants and eliminated with three or more occupants.

The discounts are credited back to the TxTag account, Albright said.

"We are comparing our data with the TxTag on the back end, and at the end of each month we will be giving reimbursements to those people who qualify," she said.

Through the app, riders also contribute 20 cents per mile for the trip, of which 3 cents goes to Carma's operations and 17 cents is paid to the driver. There is an option to give a free trip.

"The fixed rate is competitive with public transit," Carma Vice President Paul Steinberg said. "It's not like a taxi driver where you are earning a profit. But it's up to the driver to choose to get paid for the trip."

The pilot program started in fall 2013 but was more aggressively marketed to the public starting in February. Steinberg said the public-private partnership allows governing bodies to monitor the number of people traveling in one car and leverage existing infrastructure.

"Basically it's making our highways more efficient without adding more cement," he said. "There is a big move to add more managed or tolled lanes around the country, like on MoPac. The problem is, there is not enough right of way space to have shoulder capacity necessary for law enforcement to police it. But if you use technology, you can automate that process, so that's why TxDOT is providing the incentive of discounted or free tolls on Toll 183A and US 290 if you carpool with Carma."

The toll reimbursement program lasts through the end of 2014, Albright said, at which point the Texas A&M University Transportation Institute will begin evaluating if the technology is useful in encouraging carpooling and verifying occupants.

Mobility Authority Communications Manager Rick L'Amie said the program offers a good opportunity to see if customers could benefit from extended implementation of similar technology.

"We are looking at the program as a way to use technology to confirm there are riding passengers who would constitute a carpool. Technology is one of the first ways for us to learn who is in riding in a vehicle," L'Amie said. "From a mobility standpoint, we are interested in it because more people can be aware of opportunities to carpool to get to work. They'd be able to use toll facilities, and once MoPac express lanes are open, there may be an opportunity for individuals to use a similar service."