Roads of Tomorrow

June 30, 1992

Montgomery County Executive Neal Potter elevated a few eyebrows recently with his idea for raising highway construction money: Put coded strips on automobiles, like the UPC bars found on consumer goods, he said, and as the vehicles pass scanners on designated toll roads, a computer could read the code and bill the driver's account.

His idea sounded like a scene from "Star Trek, or perhaps, "Car Trek." But it's not that far-out.

In six months, the Maryland Transportation Authority plans to set up scanners at a Harbor Tunnel toll booth and will ask a small number of commuters to take part in a test of the equipment. New Orleans, Dallas and Oklahoma City are already using the technology.

When it comes to snarled highways, Mr. Potter's county is in the most dire straits of any in the state. Montgomery is to receive about $300 million from the governor's transportation fund, but that isn't a total solution. And Montgomery's own $1 billion, 10-year capital program increasingly must reserve more money for schools and less for roads.

Given reduced federal highway aid, Mr. Potter believes state and local governments must look at user fees and emerging toll technology. Congress adopted landmark legislation last fall that gives states greater leeway to approve tolls.

Expanding road capacity is half the solution to congestion; fewer motorists is the other half.

County executives in Baltimore and Harford counties have been discussing with state officials the creation of High-Occupancy Vehicle lanes, better known as HOV lanes, on Interstates 95 and 695, to encourage car pooling by restricting use of a special rush-hour lane to buses and cars carrying three or more occupants.

Government is decreasingly reliant on public do-gooder-ism to protect the environment. That's why recycling has been mandated. And why car-pooling will be. The 1990 Clean Air Act mandates that employers with more than 100 workers devise ways to encourage car-pooling by 1997, or the state could forfeit federal aid. The state plans to work with business on that.

So what do Maryland motorists have to look forward to? Toll scanners that read your car like laundry detergent at the grocery checkout? Special lanes for Baltimore area car-poolers? And you thought you needed "inner loop" and "outer loop" signs to recognize this region's highways now?

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