Quick tolls head north

Prepaid service to be expanded to part of I-95 early next year

Has eased commute for 70%

MdTA considering electronic chip to cross bay, Potomac River

November 18, 1999|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Transportation Authority will expand its electronic toll system to the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway early next year, officials said yesterday.

Motorists who use the system, known as M-TAG, receive a small plastic box containing a computer chip, which is affixed to the windshield. The system, which deducts the toll electronically from the driver's prepaid account, helps reduce traffic jams because it permits motorists to pass through toll gates without stopping.

M-TAG lanes can handle 1,100 vehicles an hour, compared with about 500 at traditional tollbooths handling cash or tickets. The heavily traveled Kennedy highway is the stretch of Interstate 95 extending north of Baltimore to the Delaware line.

Since spring, when the system was installed for commuters traveling the Fort McHenry Tunnel, the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel and the Key Bridge, 46,000 motorists have signed up. That amounts to about 70 percent of daily commuters on those roads.

"We're very pleased with the operation," said Lori Vidil, a spokeswoman for the authority.

Installation has begun at the Kennedy highway tollbooth, but Vidil said it was unclear when registration and service there will begin. The agency is reviewing possible expansion of M-TAG on the Bay Bridge and the Harry W. Nice Bridge across the Potomac River.

"As far as whether or when or how, no final decision has been made," Vidil said.

Inspections at the plazas that are using M-TAG indicated "significant" success at thinning congestion, she said, although the MTA has no precise measurements. "There are times when we have a backup, but it's usually because of a disabled vehicle," said Vidil.

Along northbound lanes at the Harbor Tunnel, the agency at times has to close the system because it moves traffic through the tollbooths faster than the two-lane tunnel can handle.

The system also sometimes fails to read the computer chip as a car passes, resulting in a letter to the motorist asking that the toll be paid. That, said Vidil, is infrequent.

"With any large, computer-supported system, there will be snags at the start," she said.

Of 271,000 electronic transactions, 128 customers called last week about receiving the letters, Vidil said. Some of those motorists had forgotten to put the gizmo in their car. Customers receive account statements every four months but the authority hopes to provide them every other month soon.

Similar systems have helped with dense traffic in some of the most congested parts of the Northeast, including New York and New Jersey.

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