MTA gives TollTag system the green light


May 24, 1993

Intrepid Commuter bears some good news for the 28,000 of us who must cross the harbor twice a day.

Ever get stuck in line at a tollbooth or had to fumble around for change or toll tickets? All that may soon become a thing of the past.

The Maryland Transportation Authority recently completed a 90-day field test of an electronic device the size of a pocket pager that could eliminate those annoying inconveniences.

The device, which was tested from November to February at the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, is called "TollTag." It's part of a system that electronically identifies approaching customers and bills their accounts automatically. Drivers who use the device don't have to stop to pay tolls, or necessarily even slow down.

During the experiment, 259 harbor tunnel commuters were told to keep the tag in a corner of their windshield.

They had to drive in a particular tollbooth lane where an electronic scanning system could identify the tag. Each time, a computer then deducted 25 cents from the commuter's account.

Preliminary test results show the system is pretty accurate, completing the transaction more than 95 percent of the time, says Thomas J. Fallon Jr., tunnels administrator.

And customers seemed to like the convenience, particularly during the last two weeks of the test when they were given the green light to breeze through tollbooths without stopping. (Previously, commuters had to hand over tickets as a way to confirm the performance of the TollTag system.)

"People said they preferred it, but with one caveat," Mr. Fallon says. "They don't want the price of a toll to increase as a result of the technology."

Not all the results were perfect. The authority experienced at least two equipment problems, once with a loose connection with a computer port and the other time with a power unit in a circuit board.

There were also some occasional errant readings with phantom signals being identified from cars that weren't there. Mr. Fallon says his staff still doesn't know what caused that to happen.

Still, the results were so good that staffers expect to have a system running at the Harbor Tunnel, the Fort McHenry Tunnel and the Key Bridge in two years. The estimated cost is $1 million.

"The experiment was successful," Mr. Fallon says. "We realized every goal we were looking at."

Stephen L. Reich, the authority's acting executive secretary, said the system will be made compatible with technology eventually adopted by neighboring states. A coalition of seven toll authorities in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania has also been experimenting with systems.

Which way to go on Winans Way?

The sign in Leakin Park carries an empty promise.

It announces that beginning April 19th, about a quarter-mile of Winans Way will become one-way during rush-hour: one-way southbound from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and one-way northbound from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Well, April 19th came and went, and Winans Way is still open to two-way traffic at all hours.

So what gives? Jack MacConnell would like to know.

The Catonsville resident car pools to work at Johns Hopkins University each day, driving on Winans Way through the community of Hunting Ridge.

Close this portion of Winans Way to commuters and he and his two fellow car poolers must face a dozen more traffic lights along U.S. 40 and Hilton Parkway.

"Plus it's not as pleasant a drive," says Mr. MacConnell, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute on the Hopkins campus.

Intrepid Commuter forwarded Mr. MacConnell's concerns to city officials, who tell us he is not alone. About two dozen people have complained about the change since the Public Works Department posted the sign on Winans Way in early April.

Vanessa Pyatt, spokeswoman for the department, says the signs were posted in April as a response to complaints of speeding and heavy commuter traffic in the residential neighborhood.

Residents wanted stop signs, but traffic planners figured they weren't feasible, Mrs. Pyatt says. Winans Way is hilly and motorists wouldn't have enough advance warning of a stop sign ahead.

On the other hand, she says, planners thought a temporary one-way designation during rush hour -- a designation, incidentally, given no other city street -- would be a better solution.

City officials were surprised by all the complaints from irate commuters.

So now they want to talk further with community leaders and interested parties to decide what to do.

A meeting is being planned for mid-June.

In the meantime, "the signs will be covered or removed," Mrs. Pyatt says, and traffic will continue to run both ways on Winans Way.

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