What's faster than E-ZPass? Just wait

May 27, 2006|By LARRY CARSON | LARRY CARSON,SUN REPORTER

As motorists hit the highways this holiday weekend, more than half will be speeding through Maryland tolls with E-ZPass electronic transponders - a Memorial Day milestone that has planners thinking about the next stage: high-speed lanes that would allow cars to pass through tolls without slowing down.

Already in use in some states, the "full-speed" toll collection lanes are included in plans for the Intercounty Connector in Montgomery County and in a widening slated for Interstate 95 north of Baltimore in the next few years. "Once the Intercounty Connector opens, we'll see a dramatic rise in the use of E-ZPass," said Maryland Transportation Authority Executive Secretary Trent M. Kittleman.

The new system will allow drivers to move at full speed while paying tolls electronically, either through E-ZPass or by photos of their license plates, though that will cost slightly more. Kittleman said a widened 10-mile section of I-95 north of Baltimore would also be equipped for separate high-speed E-ZPass-only use when it opens by 2011. Barring delays, portions of the ICC are expected to open in 2010.

Though based on 17-year-old technology, the E-ZPass transponder system is growing quickly in popularity. The device sends an electronic signal when a vehicle equipped with one passes through a toll plaza. The information is processed, and a toll is automatically deducted from a pre-arranged personal account the driver created with the Maryland Transportation Authority. The account can be automatically replenished via credit card, or a motorist can pay periodically by check or cash. It works in most East Coast states, though several, like Florida, have a separate, incompatible system.

"It makes a big difference in the toll plazas," said John Taylor, a Howard County resident who often travels to Philadelphia.

Kelly Melham, a spokeswoman for Kittleman's agency, said that over a half-million devices are on Maryland residents' vehicles. In June and July of 2005, usage was 41 percent of all vehicles, up 7 percent from 2004. Maryland operates seven toll facilities, including two tunnels, four bridges, and Kennedy Highway (I-95), which all take E-ZPass.

The system is really a cooperative among participating agencies that pay annual dues ranging from $17,500 to $70,000, plus their own operating expenses. Melham said Maryland pays $1 million a month to ACS State and Local Solutions of Dallas to operate the system, plus internal operating costs.

But Crawford said the system is "a huge public service," not a money-saving venture, though speeding up traffic may save or at least postpone expensive highway expansions.

Together with other, similar systems used in Florida, California and Texas, there are now about 23 million of the devices used in the United States, led by New York drivers, according to James A. Crawford, executive director of the Interagency Group of E-ZPass, based in Atlantic City, N.J.

The devices are good in 10 East Coast states plus Illinois, and are free to the public, Crawford said.

"We're increasing by more than 4 percent a year, and penetration rates are going up," Crawford said, though Ohio is an exception. No electronic tolls are collected there.

Crawford said about 70 percent of rush-hour motorists in New York use the system to avoid long lines at toll booths.

"The average [human] toll collector, if they're really good, can collect from 400 vehicles an hour. A coin basket can handle 500 tolls an hour," Crawford said. A standard E-ZPass lane that requires drivers to slow to under 20 miles per hour can handle 1,000 vehicles an hour, while newer full-speed express lanes can move 1,500 vehicles an hour.

Full-speed lanes are already operating in Delaware, on Route 1 near Dover, on the New Jersey Turnpike north of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, on a section of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and in Texas, and Illinois is converting 20 toll plazas, said Peter Samuel, a Frederick-based writer on tolls who edits a Web site devoted to the toll industry.

"Quite a lot of new ones are being built that way already," he said, though the first full-speed roadway was the ETR 407 highway in Toronto. The first E-ZPass road opened in 1989 on the Dallas North Tollway, he said.

Although Kittleman has talked about going to overhead electronic toll collection on Maryland's Bay Bridge, Samuel said he doesn't favor that.

"I think that should be one of the last places to get overhead tolling" because of frequent traffic delays not related to toll back-ups and many motorists who are occasional users.

"The tolling is not the problem. The problem is only five lanes," he said. The bridge is expected to see 324,000 vehicles this holiday weekend, according to Kittleman's agency.

Elsewhere this weekend, state officials predicted another 493,000 motorists will use the Fort McHenry Tunnel, 261,000 at the Harbor Tunnel, 472,000 on I-95 and 117,000 at the Hatem Bridge on U.S. 40 at Havre de Grace.

For those worried about privacy rights, Crawford said E-ZPass On The Go offers an option that doesn't involve identifying the car in use.

"You can buy an anonymous transponder and pay cash for it," Crawford said, though if a vehicle is stolen, an E-ZPass can help if the license is registered and the thief leaves the transponder and the tag on the vehicle. When such a vehicle passes through a toll facility, Crawford said, it would appear as a red line on a supervisor's display, prompting a quick call to police.

Samuel said more cash-based systems are in use in Puerto Rico and in Japan and Singapore, where in his view there is much more public concern about personal privacy.

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