Marsha Williams says she never expected to work for a highway authority. The technology leader has created process improvements for global manufacturing companies, redesigned revenue streams for energy firms, and has a track record in strategic technology initiatives for pharmaceutical companies. In four industries, she held the title of chief information officer.
Yet Colorado’s E-470 Public Highway Authority, where Williams is now the CIO and technology director, is no ordinary strip of asphalt. Operating as a self-sustaining entity, the toll road generated approximately $190 million in 2015 while paying out $91 million to bondholders who built the road in the late 1980s. The forty-seven-mile expressway skirts the suburbs of Denver and is one of the most technologically advanced roadways in the United States.
E-470 was always intended since its late-1980s inception to be a futuristic piece of infrastructure. “It was designed with emerging technologies in mind,” Williams says. Williams arrived at the organization in 2011, but as with all organizations that have technology at the core of its business, Williams and her team were expected to take operations to the next level.
“Open road tolling combined with highway speed toll collection was in its infancy when E-470 was built,” Williams says. She explains that originally there were cash lane options because not everyone had the bulky transponders (that, incidentally, required batteries). “No one could fully envision what would come next.”
Of course, much has been developed since. Using a combination of commercial and custom software systems, the IT function has followed a focused driver-centric path of innovation. In 2009, it began to offer a cashless license plate reading option. This enables any driver to access the highway as needed, with no prior installation of a transponder. Cameras read the license plate, then work from plate-holder databases of state departments of motor vehicles. Tolls are then charged to the driver by mail.
Williams’s department is also responsible for the technologies that support customer self-service, emphasizing the goal is to have the customer choose the most convenient method to engage. All of this is backed up by a contact center that is consistently rated by customers with a satisfaction score of 4.9 on a five-point scale.
While there are the technological components of what they do, Williams says, there are human, high-touch initiatives as well. Back in the days of tollbooth operators, many drivers had a familiar face to bid them a good morning. Today, that relationship is different and digital. “We want it to be nonsterile,” she says. “This is a reason we embrace social media, where our employees can take the pulse of the customer and maintain a one-on-one relationship.”
Indeed, the organization provides a good demonstration of successful public and private partnerships. Families and businesses can pay for multiple vehicles on a single account. Frequent users can access a rewards program, providing such benefits as reduced parking rates at the airport. Because the maintenance of the roadway is built into the budget, drivers encounter fewer potholes than on publicly maintained highways that must compete with other programs for money from public coffers (including gas-tax revenues that are dwindling in an era of fuel-efficient vehicles).
As the head of IT, Williams may also be envied for the financial model that builds and maintains the E-470. Justification for the IT budget is aided by the essential nature of technological performance to the organization. The elimination of toll booths means there is no fallback position if the technology fails to work properly.
In fact, the success of these technological capabilities in particular has taken them beyond the eastern Denver suburbs. Recently, the Colorado Department of Transportation searched for a vendor to similarly manage the expansion of tolled express lanes across the state, including I-70 that accommodates out-of-state drivers coming from the ski slopes. They required the kind of technology and expertise that E-470 had already developed and implemented.
Competing against private firms in this industry, Williams led a team who won these highly coveted contracts. “We could provide economies of scale while maintaining flexibility and high service levels,” she says. “We created a single online account for drivers who use all these lanes in the state.” It’s a case of one quasi-governmental entity serving another. It’s also just as important to help spread the cost of IT investment over more projects.
Just how Williams had never pictured working in pavement, in-demand younger tech workers might find tech startups initially more appealing. Yet Williams ensures that she is well networked among Rocky Mountain tech talent to staff her thirty-five-person team. “We pride ourselves in making this a geek’s paradise,” she says. Williams changes these geeks’ perceptions of what roads can be, and they in turn change the experience of the customer-drivers of Colorado.
An actuator of the mind’s varsity sport
Marsha Williams constructs smart roads, but she also creates smart career pathways for the next generation as well. Since 2003, she has volunteered for FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a global organization that had 400,000 participants in 2016. In her role as judge-manager, she helps identify winners in the Colorado Regional FIRST Robotics competition.
Yet just because it sounds techy, don’t assume it’s all just math and science geniuses. “We call this the varsity sport of the mind,” Williams says, noting that some schools even send the cheerleading squad to support their competitors.
While the projects are STEM-driven, Williams emphasizes that the competition taxes business skills as well. She says, “Students learn that successful teams—just like successful entities—require the skills and talents of all disciplines, not just technology.”