High-tech tolls envisioned for ICC

Coin- and hassle-free payments planned for road in Montgomery, Prince George's


Imagine driving from Washington to Delaware without stopping. No fishing through pockets or purses for that last quarter to make $2 for the tunnel. No backup at Exit 109, listening to horns blaring as you almost lose your life cutting off that 18-wheeler in the E-ZPass lane.

Imagine being able to drive smoothly through the Washington suburbs - bypassing all that Beltway traffic - for a price you might not even realize you're paying.

If the Intercounty Connector is finally built, it will bring the future of electronic toll collecting to Maryland, allowing motorists to zip through "open-road tolling," as the industry calls it, without stopping to hand over cash or make sure the green light goes off.

"The toll industry is in a state of major transformation," said Peter Samuel, a Frederick resident and tolling expert who maintains a Web site that monitors tolling news. "I think the days of cash toll collection are numbered."

The 18-mile ICC would go through Montgomery and Prince George's counties, linking Interstate 270 to Interstate 95. The first segment is scheduled to open in four years, assuming it receives all necessary approvals.

The ICC has been a hot-button issue in Maryland for years. The idea of linking the two Interstate highways, and the fierce opposition to it, has become a staple of suburban Washington and, lately, statewide politics.

But pro or con, one of the more interesting features of the proposed ICC would be the high-tech overhead toll detectors envisioned for it.

These detectors would do one of two things: sense a transponder, like the one already used by E-ZPass customers, or photograph the car's license plate, using automatic character recognition to identify the numbers.

Trent Kittleman, executive secretary of the Maryland Transportation Authority, said this was a way to satisfy environmental objections to the ICC and concerns over its projected $2.4 billion cost.

"It's charging it to the people using it in the future rather than the people sitting here now without the road," she said.

Proponents of the electronic toll system say it pays huge benefits to the environment. For one thing, elimination of toll booth plazas means far less land is necessary. And a road with no toll plazas means a road without miles-long backups of idling and honking vehicles.

Customers with existing E-ZPass accounts would see tolls deducted the same way they are now. Other customers would make contact via telephone, online or in person, supply their license plate number - already on file from the overhead cameras - and use credit cards or cash to pay tolls.

"They'll need to make a big drive for people to get transponders," Samuel said, since many of the drivers who would use the ICC don't regularly use the toll plazas in the Baltimore area and on I-95 north of Baltimore. The MTA has issued more than 489,000 E-ZPass transponders and almost half of all toll transactions in Maryland are through E-ZPass.

Although Maryland officials are vague on how the new technology would be implemented, it is already a reality in other countries - Australia, Britain, and Canada - and is beginning to take hold in the U.S.

Maryland officials visited the 407 Express Toll Route in Canada, which was the "first completely barrier-free system in the world," said Dale A. Albers, spokesman for the private company that runs the 407 ETR.

But being the first came with unanticipated problems.

The architects had put maintenance catwalks in front of the cameras, blocking toll collection during repairs. The back spray from snow shielded license plates from the camera's view, giving people the idea to pack snow over their plates themselves. And the government hired too few people to handle the volume of calls the system generated.

Today, maintenance is done at night, enforcement is much stricter and they have 200 customer service representatives to cover 2,000 phone lines.

"You need adequate legislation for enforcement," Albers said. "It's human nature. People will try anything they can think of to avoid a toll."

Samuel said it is often more economical to build all-electronic toll roads when starting from scratch, as with the ICC.

"It's a bit more questionable ... getting rid of [existing] toll plazas," such as the Bay Bridge's, he said. Then it depends on the cost of toll collectors' wages versus the costs of construction.

Kittleman pointed out that the Bay Bridge is in the "very initial stage" of study with no electronic toll collection certain and I-95, while "definitely" going electronic with additional express lanes, won't be finished until after 2010.

"They're wonderful human beings, most of them," Samuel said of the collectors. "But as an occupation I think they're going the way of the elevator attendant."

Katrina Altersitz writes for the Capital News Service.

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