Burgers to go, hold the cash

Tolls: In Southern California, McDonald's will experiment with expressway technology.

March 27, 2000|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,Sun Staff

Southern California motorists who get a hankering for a Big Mac will be getting real drive-through service soon.

McDonald's has struck a deal with local highway officials to let customers at four Orange County restaurants pay for their meals automatically with the same radio transponders they use to pay tolls on local expressways.

Elsewhere across the country, including Maryland, highway departments are using the same technology to ease congestion at toll plazas, create seamless interstate toll roads and make it easier for drivers to buy gas and goodies to go.

In Orange County, McDonald's, SIRIT Technologies and the agency that oversees toll roads hope the 250,000 motorists who use the FasTrak electronic toll system will cooperate in an experiment that could be the next step toward a cashless future.

Several million motorists around the country -- mostly concentrated in the Northeast from Maryland to Massachusetts -- use similar devices that send signals to receivers in toll plazas. These systems identify the car and either deduct the toll from a prepaid account or charge the motorist's credit card.

Motorists equipped with the gadgets can use special pass-through lanes at toll booths, avoiding long lines of drivers fumbling for quarters or waiting for change.

The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority has asked potential contractors for gas stations and drive-through restaurants at its 11 toll plazas whether they can handle radio transponder transactions for fuel and munchies.

"It's not like putting astronauts in space and sending them to Mars," says Bob Bliss, spokesman for the Massachusetts authority. "We don't think this is much of a stretch."

Although California may be in the vanguard, electronic toll collection is still heavily concentrated in Northeast, home to 75 percent of the country's 5 million transponders, according to Martin Capper, an executive vice president for Mark IV Industries Ltd. in Toronto, which produces the systems used here.

Whatever the name -- E-ZPass in New York, BankBoston Fast Lane in Massachusetts, or M-TAG in Maryland -- the devices are nothing more than radio-based credit and debit cards, Capper said.

"Whenever you use your credit card in a road environment -- whether parking, going through the drive-through window or making a gas payment -- you will be able to use this," Capper said.

The system is simple: a transponder, usually a small box on the windshield, communicates with a reader at the toll plaza. To get one, motorists usually pay a refundable deposit that ranges from $10 in Maryland to $30 in California.

More sophisticated equipment can be used for high-speed transactions, said Michael Briand, president and CEO of SIRIT Technologies, a Toronto technology firm that supplies Southern California's FasTrack equipment.

As an example, he offers Ontario Route 407, a toll road with no toll plazas.

Equipment on the side of road reads the radio transponder signal as drivers zip by and charges the toll. Those using the highway without a transponder have their license tags photographed and receive a toll bill in the mail.

"They'll bill you an extra buck a trip, too," Capper said.

Maryland began electronic toll collection a year ago at the Fort McHenry Tunnel, Baltimore Harbor Tunnel and Francis Scott Key Bridge.

While Maryland hasn't yet hooked into the Northeast's E-ZPass system, which allows motorists to pay automatically in several jurisdictions, it could join by the end of the year once arrangements are made with other states. Late this summer, though, Maryland will expand M-TAG to the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway, the 51 miles of Interstate 95 from Baltimore to the Delaware line.

Equipment has been installed at the toll plaza north of the Susquehanna River, but officials want to iron out some computer glitches at the tunnel plazas before expanding, according to Lori A. Vidil, spokeswoman for the Maryland Transportation Authority.

"We've seen a decrease in congestion at the locations where it is used," Vidil said. Currently, the system has about 51,000 users.

Elsewhere, the radio transponder technology is showing up in gated communities in Florida and at garages in Boston.

McDonald's officials in California said they saw an opportunity to sell more hamburgers.

"It's a little early to tell what the future holds, but we're excited about this because it's another way to make it convenient for the customer," said Lisa Howard, a McDonald's spokeswoman.

When McDonald's came calling, Orange County toll road officials had already been fielding queries from other companies interested in the transponders.

"We had talked to parking garages and gated communities -- those are the people we had been talking to, rather than a retail entity," said Lisa Telles, spokeswoman for the Transportation Corridor Agencies of California.

Briand of SIRIT said McDonald's contacted his company last fall. After months of negotiation and installation, the experiment is expected to begin next week.

With a quarter of a million transponders already installed in Southern California, McDonald's won't have to concentrate on getting people to sign up -- and won't have to work hard to persuade them to drive in.

Said Telles, "They have a universe of people already."

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