Turnpike considers all-electronic tolls

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The Pennsylvania Turnpike will consider doing away with toll booths, toll collectors and drivers fumbling for bills and coins.

The turnpike has advertised for a consultant to study conversion to all-electronic collection, a method already used on toll roads and bridges in several states and fast gaining in popularity.

"In our industry, it's pretty much accepted that this is the wave of the future," turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo said.

The study will take a year, and if all-electronic collection is deemed feasible, it will set forth a proposed timetable for converting the 545-mile turnpike system, including its extensions.

"We have almost 70 toll plazas. It is a monumental task," Mr. DeFebo said.

"We'll be there someday. There's no doubt in my mind," said turnpike CEO Joe Brimmeier.

At present, 62 percent of turnpike users have E-ZPass transponders, and that percentage is expected to grow when the turnpike starts charging higher tolls to cash customers in January.

With E-ZPass, motorists establish a prepaid account and mount a transponder on their vehicles. Tolls are automatically deducted when they pass a tolling point.

In an all-electronic system, the license plates of drivers without E-ZPass would be photographed and bills would be sent by mail, typically with a service charge or premium added.

All-electronic-tolling systems use gantries that detect the transponders as vehicles pass underneath. Traffic maintains highway speeds as it passes the tolling points, eliminating the backups that occur at conventional toll plazas.

The turnpike currently has five locations with E-ZPass express lanes that don't require motorists to slow down as they pass: Gateway toll plaza in Lawrence County, Warrendale plaza in Allegheny County, Mid-County plaza in Montgomery County and on the Mon-Fayette Expressway at Jefferson Hills and in Fayette County.

At other E-ZPass collection points, a 5 mph speed limit is posted.

The turnpike already is converting some interchanges to cashless operations.

Westbound on- and off-ramps at the Virginia Drive interchange north of Philadelphia are E-ZPass only, and a new eastbound interchange in Bucks County will open as E-ZPass only this month.

Two other E-ZPass-only interchanges are under construction, on the mainline in Chester County and on the Northeast Extension in Carbon County, Mr. DeFebo said.

Next year, the three exits immediately east of the Breezewood interchange - Fort Littleton, Willow Hill and Blue Mountain - will go cashless, Mr. Brimmeier said.

The turnpike may place machines at those exits that read toll tickets and accept credit cards. Vehicles without E-ZPass or credit cards would be photographed and billed by mail.

If that proves successful, the next step will be to convert the turnpike's various extensions, including the Mon-Fayette Expressway and Findlay Connector, to E-ZPass or credit card payment.

"Coins in a basket - I want to get rid of that altogether," Mr. Brimmeier said.

The turnpike already has deployed technology to photograph license plates and issue bills. When a vehicle without E-ZPass strays into the E-ZPass lane at a toll booth, overhead cameras snap four photos of the license plate. A computer chooses the clearest shot and an optical scanner reads the plate number and generates a violation notice.

All-electronic collection improves traffic flow, eliminates the safety hazards inherent with toll plazas and saves money, Mr. DeFebo said. The turnpike has about 600 toll collectors who are paid $37,000 to $46,000 per year.

"It still costs money to collect tolls (electronically) but it's obviously much less expensive," he said.

State Rep. Joseph Markosek, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he thinks lawmakers "and all Pennsylvanians" will support the transition if it saves a lot of money.

Asked if some legislators might balk at losing a time-honored source of patronage jobs, Mr. Markosek said the study could consider ways of easing the impact on toll collectors, through attrition or reassignments.

"If it significantly saves money ... we need to move in that direction," he said.

Other states are embracing all-electronic collections.

Forty-seven miles of Florida's Turnpike in south Florida will be converted by early next year. The 15-mile Lee Roy Selmon Expressway in Tampa debuted all-electronic collection last month.

The Atlantic City Expressway in New Jersey will go all-electronic by Memorial Day. "Toll collectors are going to become obsolete," spokeswoman Sharon Gordon told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

A new Scudder Falls Bridge carrying Interstate 95 over the Delaware River between Pennsylvania and New Jersey is expected to have all-electronic tolling.

All-electronic collection also is used on highways in California, Texas and Colorado.

Joseph Schwieterman, a DePaul University professor who studies transportation issues, said an all-electronic Pennsylvania Turnpike "would be a trailblazing move but one fraught with risk."

Because the highway is a "major transcontinental route," many users from other states won't have E-ZPass and could be upset at receiving bills in the mail.

"It's one thing to get that when you commit a violation. It's another thing when that's the only way of doing business," he said. "There's also a Big Brother quality that will rear its ugly head."

Turnpike spokesman Bill Capone said the agency issued 450,000 E-ZPass violation notices last year. That computes to 0.2 percent of the 190 million vehicles that used the turnpike.

Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit "The Roundabout," the Post-Gazette's transportation blog, at post-gazette.com.


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