State OKs high-tech collection of tolls Computerized system is to be in operation at four sites by 1998

November 28, 1996|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Maryland commuters could whisk through highway toll plazas and put it on the tab, electronically speaking, under a new toll-collection system approved by state officials yesterday.

The State Board of Public Works approved a $22.4 million contract that likely will give drivers some relief from clogged toll plazas and introduce high-tech enforcement of toll violations.

The system is scheduled to be operating by the spring of 1998 at the three Baltimore harbor crossings and at the toll booth on the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway in Cecil County.

"I am pleased that we will be able to implement this innovative technology that will reduce delays, improve air quality at our toll plazas, and increase convenience for tens of thousands of Maryland commuters," Gov. Parris N. Glendening said in a statement.

Drivers who use the electronic system will have a battery-powered transponder the size of a deck of cards attached to their front windshield. When the car passes through specially equipped lanes at the four toll plazas, the transponder will transmit a coded signal informing a computer of the identity of the car owner.

The computer will automatically deduct the amount of the toll from an account the car owner had set up with the state.

The toll for cars at the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, the Fort McHenry Tunnel and the Key Bridge in Baltimore is $1. The toll for northbound drivers on Kennedy Highway is $2; no toll is charged for southbound traffic.

The board approved the contract with Lockheed Martin IMS, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corp., headquartered in Bethesda, to install and operate the new system for five years.

The Board of Public Works -- Glendening, Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein and Treasurer Richard N. Dixon -- approved the contract unanimously.

The system also will give state authorities their first use of video surveillance equipment to enforce toll collection.

Video cameras will monitor the license tags of all cars moving through lanes that are dedicated to electronic toll collection.

The tags of a car that moves through the lane improperly -- that is, without the computerized toll transaction taking place -- will be recorded by a video image.

The Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the toll system, then will notify the car owner of the violation.

The owner of the car will be liable for the unpaid toll unless the owner can prove that someone else was driving.

The General Assembly approved a bill this year giving the Transportation Authority the power to install the video-monitoring system.

The bill prohibits the state from releasing the video records of cars that pass through the toll booths -- information state officials said might be coveted by employers checking on the whereabouts of their workers or angry spouses involved in a divorce action.

"We were very concerned about customer privacy," said Lori A. Vidil, spokeswoman for the Transportation Authority.

The legislature defeated a similar measure that would have allowed police to use video cameras to enforce traffic laws.

Electronic toll systems similar to the one planned for Maryland are in use in about 20 states.

For now, Maryland's new system will be offered only to two-axle vehicles, but could be expanded later to include commercial vehicles.

State officials expect about 60,000 drivers -- mostly commuters -- to take part in the system.

Commuters account for about 35 percent of the 181,000 crossings of the Baltimore harbor each day, officials said.

The new system will allow the state to use fewer toll collectors, although transportation officials said they did not know how many.

The authority stopped hiring toll collectors several months ago to avoid layoffs once the system is operating, said Stephen L. Reich, authority executive secretary.

Since the mid-1970s, the Transportation Authority has maintained an optical system to automatically collect tolls at the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge, which spans the Susquehanna River on U.S. 40 at Havre de Grace.

It works like a supermarket scanner -- motorists paste a decal on their windshield that can be read with a laser beam.

Officials say the optical system has worked fairly well, but has limitations: It can't distinguish among millions of vehicles as the radio wave system can do or process cars as swiftly.

Pub Date: 11/28/96

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