Maryland's M-TAG electronic toll service will link up with the East Coast's E-ZPass system by the end of the year, allowing M-TAG customers to move with ease through tollgates from Massachusetts to West Virginia.
In both systems, customers affix a small transponder to their vehicle's windshield. At a tollgate, a computer reads the transponder, deducts the toll from a prepaid account and permits the motorist to pass without stopping, saving time for the driver and reducing congestion.
E-ZPass operates in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia, and has more than 5 million customers.
Motorists have called for compatibility between the systems since M-TAG's launch two years ago, and officials in Maryland say they planned to form a reciprocal agreement once their system got on its feet.
"The clear benefit is one regional electronic toll system throughout the Northeast so customers can move through these facilities without stopping and having to pay cash," said Lori Vidil of the Maryland Transportation Authority. Human toll takers can process about 500 vehicles an hour, compared with electronic toll booths, which can handle 1,100.
Because Maryland uses the M-TAG system, its customers have had to choose between losing out on convenience when they use the E-ZPass facilities or patronizing both systems. The lack of compatibility also grated on E-ZPass drivers who had to pay the old-fashioned way in Maryland.
"I've actually received more requests from individuals from other states," Vidil said. "People in and out of Maryland are anxious for this change."
With the linkup of the two systems, the Transportation Authority expects its M-TAG customer base to increase. It serves 64,000 commuter customers, and an additional 100,000 transponders have been ordered in anticipation of the end-of-the-year change. No date has been set.
"The way it works now, once people cross over the Maryland line, M-TAG is no longer valid, which has prevented people from purchasing it," said Myra Wieman of the Mid-Atlantic AAA. "More people will be apt to purchase the electronic tag if they travel through that territory on a regular basis. We are 150 percent supportive of this."
Making the two systems compatible will require other changes.
M-TAG holders pay a flat $20 fee for a set of 50 trips valid for 60 days at any of the agency's three harbor crossings -- the Harbor Tunnel, the Fort McHenry Tunnel and the Key Bridge.
E-ZPass customers pay the cash value of tolls, and under the combined system, M-TAG customers will do the same.
Commuter discount plans will continue to be available with deadlines for using the trips. But M-TAG customers who pay full-fare tolls will have no deadline for using them.
When the reciprocal program begins, Maryland will expand its M-TAG service to the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway (Interstate 95) toll plaza.