Technology makes change at toll booth

Electronic fares: Maryland joins toll-card system that offers the hope of interstate travel with less hassle.

June 13, 1999

WHAT THE euro is to Europe, the EZ-Pass toll card is to the Northeast motorist. Some day, folks will be able to drive from Massachusetts through Maryland, never stopping at a tollbooth.

That may not be as momentous as the economic unification of Europe. But if you've ever been in a line of gesturing drivers at a tunnel into Manhattan or fumbled for change in Delaware, with enough tolls for a state twice its size, the prospect is remarkable.

Maryland last month unveiled electronic toll collection for commuters who use the tunnels and bridge at Baltimore's harbor. People who travel that route to work can apply for a "transponder," a device the size of a cassette tape, to mount near the windshield of their vehicle. As the car enters the toll plaza, the device transmits a signal to deduct the fee from a prepaid account or by credit card.

Maryland's system, called M-TAG, will link later this year to a larger network called EZ-Pass. It will encompass a dozen road and bridge authorities in the Northeast that began working a decade ago to create the world's largest seamless toll system. On 415 miles of roads, tunnels and bridges, the authorities collect 70 percent of the $3 billion in annual U.S. toll revenue.

Similar systems are used around the world, but the coalition that involves Maryland is the largest, with 2.5 million participants. Even more impressive than the space-age technology is that bureaucracies with harsh reputations -- try saying "New Jersey Turnpike" while smiling -- sought to make life easier for the motoring public.

The Maryland Transportation Authority is beginning timidly, restricting the program to commuters who frequently use the Fort McHenry Tunnel, Baltimore Harbor Tunnel and Key Bridge.

It should move quickly to allow the general public to sign up, especially since Delaware offers EZ-Pass to all travelers. One recent Sunday on Interstate 95, toll lines in that state were stacked 20 deep -- except for the EZ-Pass lane with a lone car or two scooting through.

Interstate travel with fewer toll hassles? Could world peace be nearer at hand?

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