Revitalizing The Roadways

States are on a drive to clear their roads, and electronic toll collection systems are helping them get there.

by / March 3, 2001 0
Once in a while, a good idea evolves into something tangible. Electronic toll collection is one such idea. In the Northeast, motorists can now travel from New Jersey to New Hampshire without having to stop once and search for change to pay a bridge toll. This new ease of travel is thanks to E-ZPass, which, as the largest electronic toll collection system in the country, is setting a standard.

Electronic toll collection is making commutes more bearable in other regions as well, with as many as 20 agencies across thecountryusing someformofit. Otherstatesthat have adopted it so far include Florida, Texas, California, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia and Colorado.

In New Jersey, the E-ZPass system developed by Mark IV Industries produced results immediately, although some of the benefits, such as a reduction in air pollution, will have to be measured over time.

"Its extremely complex, but what it has done as far as clearing out the congestion in our toll plazas is absolutely incredible, and that was apparent within a few hours of opening," said Lynn Fleeger, director of public affairs of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.

Changing the Roads Character

Motorists pass through E-ZPass toll lanes without stopping. An overhead antenna reads account information from a three-by-four-inch elec- tronic tag (transponder) affixed to the inside of the motorists windshield. The appropriate toll is automatically deducted from the motorists prepaid account. Those motorists without an account can use the cash lane as before.

"We have a closed ticket system where we charge our tolls by a point of origin and point of destination based on the distance traveled," Fleeger said. "So we required whats called a read-write technology, which reads the tag on entry, writes the information on the tag and stores it until the vehicle exits where its read again and the appropriate toll is calculated."

Previous to E-ZPass, a half-mile or more of cars inching up to the cash lane on the New Jersey Turnpike was a common sight. Now a line of six or seven cars in the cash lane is considered a traffic jam.

"E-ZPass on the turnpike has changed the roads character," said Edward Gross, executive director of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. "In fact, Id say the turnpike is a brand new road in that we have no appreciable queues during our commute hours at virtually every one of our interchanges."

Reducing traffic jams at toll plazas will inevitably result in reduced fuel consumption and a reduction in air pollution. "The benefits are enormous," Gross said. "Experts have the capacity through statistics to determine the type of pollution in the air based on the length and time of the queue, then compare it to current queues. Its highly technical but statistically it certainly can be documented, and were going to embark upon that."

Collaborative Collection

The E-ZPass system was implemented by the Regional Consortium, an organization comprised of five transportation agencies representing Delaware, New Jersey and New York. The E-ZPass system links those states to Maryland, Massachusetts and West Virginia. There are an estimated 5 million transponders circulating among those states, and the number is growing.

Maine will convert its 85,000 Transpass accounts to E-ZPass, despite the fact that polls showed that most Maine residents liked the Transpass system and thought it saved them time. The move is being made to help standardize electronic toll collection in the region. "Our system works only in Maine," said Bruce Pelletier, public affairs assistant of the Maine Turnpike. "With the E-ZPass system you can travel through many different states with the same device." Pelletier also said that Maines Transpass system is more complicated than E-ZPass, and that finding manufacturers of the Transpass device has been difficult.

With the growth of electronic toll collection throughout the country, some sort of standardization will be key in developing effective electronic toll systems.

"The Northeast is a great example," said Neil Schuster, executive director of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association. "Within that interagency group, theyve got about a dozen different agencies, and as they each implement [E-ZPass] on their own schedule, they are implementing a standardized system that the region has chosen. And were seeing the agencies in California coming up with one system as well."

Schuster said the regional standards that are emerging might develop into one national standard.

"Florida, California and the Northeast are three regions that are setting standards that I think will lead toward a national standard," Schuster said. He added that its very difficult to create a national standard without operational experience, and standard setting will "parallel the actual use of real-world systems."

Fleeger said the public will demand some sort of standard. "We actually went out and did focus groups and one of our focus group sessions was with the major trucking firms on what they would most like to see in electronic toll collection. Far and away their biggest concern was having to use five or six transponders, depending on which state theyre in.

"The application is going to become standardized throughout the nation longer term. I know the federal government right now is working on standards for electronic toll collection that could allow interoperability; perhaps not full reciprocity but interoperability. And E-ZPass seems to be the standard because we have the most installations, not only in the nation but in the world."

Making It Work

Having a solid software program is one of the keys to implementing an electronic toll collection system. Glitches with the transponders and antenna used in the E-ZPass system have been few.

"There are problems," Fleeger said. "Every day I get calls from people who feel theyve been incorrectly charged. Sometimes a transponder is coded improperly and theyre charged at a different vehicle class rate than they should be. But there are always going to be people who think they can beat the system."

Motorists who pass through an E-ZPass lane without a transponder trigger a camera that records an image of the violators license plate. A $25 administrative fee
is assessed and a request to pay the toll is made.

A bigger key to success with electronic toll collection systems, however, is doing the homework necessary prior to implementation. "The first thing an agency should do is some pre-market research to determine their initial market penetration, because the worst thing they could do is not have enough E-ZPass lanes available to the customers when they open," said Fleeger, adding that the two biggest complaints from motorists have been lane placement and consistency. "Everybody who gets behind the wheel is a traffic engineer, and they all know where the lanes should be placed. Consistency is probably the biggest complaint that we have -- that [placement of E-ZPass lanes] is not consistent from one toll plaza to another."

Another key is promotion. "Government agencies are not accustomed to going out and selling something, but its important that you get into a good public relations mode and you go out and you promote it," Gross said.

For New Jersey, that promotion meant getting the public to buy into the system, and included convincing the people that they werent giving up too much private information by signing on with E-ZPass. "We took pains to demonstrate that their personal information is not available for any other purpose but for toll collection. We made it easy for the customer both to become acquainted with E-ZPass and be comfortable with it," Gross said. "We bought radio spots, we did a lot of flyers, we had staff go on TV and we had mobile vans that went up and down the state."

And they made it easy to open up an account, which could be done by calling an 800 number, through the mail, or on the Web site, which is interactive and enabled the customer to get a transponder within 48 hours.

Here to Stay

The $300 million price tag for installation was funded through private 10-year loans backed by the major authorities that operate the toll roads and bridges. The $500 million estimated total cost for design, construction, operation and maintenance will be offset somewhat by the expected revenue from the 400 miles of fiber-optic cable placed for E-ZPass being leased to businesses.

"We installed excess capacity," Fleeger said. "There was enough capacity built into it that we were able to lease that excess capacity to private entities to help defray the cost of installing the system."

In addition, officials estimate toll violation fees to be about $450 million over a 10-year span. Should the estimates for toll violation fees fall short of projections, or if the loans remain unpaid in 10 years, road authorities would have to pay the difference, which could translate into slightly higher tolls.

Overall, Schuster predicts toll collection systems are here to stay.

"Its growing pretty fast and the agencies that have a lot of repeat customers are the ones that will benefit from using it for traffic," he said. "Where you have a throughput issue, where you want to get more traffic through your toll plaza, thats where it tends to be successful."
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor