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Paying the Toll May Become Part Of the Ride Again

By JOSH GARSKOF (NYT) 2065 words
Published: April 27, 2003

AT the 19 tollbooths that once straddled Connecticut's highways and bridges, the most advanced technology was the coin basket, which moved significantly faster than the cashiers making change in other lanes. Still, drivers could count on hefty toll-plaza delays as cars lined up to pay during rush hour and on holidays.

Now, 14 years after the state closed its last tollbooth, 20 years after a fiery accident killed seven women and children waiting in one of those exact change lanes, there is talk of once again charging vehicles to use the state's highways. Some experts have said technology could eliminate the delays, the hassles, and the safety risks.

The Transportation Strategy Board, a group formed by the state to study transportation issues, has suggested studying the feasibility of reinstating tolls to pay for road improvements, such as a new Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge over the Quinnipiac River in New Haven. The Conference of Municipalities, which represents many cities and towns, has proposed installing tolls at the state's borders to help close Connecticut's budget shortfall. To relieve traffic congestion, the Connecticut Fund for the Environment has recommended allowing solitary drivers to buy their way onto the high-occupancy vehicle lanes around Hartford and making the Merritt Parkway a tolled-alternative to the Connecticut Turnpike. State Representative Livvy Floren, a Republican of Stamford, has suggested charging $10 at the exits of the state's two casinos.

Gov. John Rowland has been cool to the proposals.

''Anything that would involve disrupting traffic flow would not be consistent with what we're trying to achieve,'' said Chris Cooper, the governor's spokesman.

Residents aren't thrilled with the idea of tolls, either.

Karen Maloney, a teacher in Fairfield, described Interstate 95 as ''a treacherous deathtrap,'' saying, ''I'm petrified to drive on it.'' She offered a common opinion among the customers one recent morning at P. Gordon Coffee Roasters, just off Exit 21 of the Connecticut Turnpike in Fairfield. ''Cars are driving faster,'' she said, ''and making them stop to pay a toll is asking for disaster.''

But toll technology has changed and actually having to stop to pay may eventually become quaint. The E-ZPass system used in New York and New Jersey is just the beginning and the companies working on new technology are designing a world where drivers not only don't have to slow down to pay, but don't even have to drive through a tollbooth.

''Whether it's the public or the legislature, people's perception of tolls is what they were when they were last here in Connecticut,'' said Ed Regan, senior vice president of Wilbur Smith Associates in New Haven, an international traffic engineering company that helps design toll systems.

Tolls are becoming electronic and the E-ZPass-type systems are the backbone of even newer technology being used around the world.

Under E-ZPass (called Fast Lane in Massachusetts), drivers who set up a prepaid account get a palm-sized device to mount on their windshield. It transmits a radio-frequency that identifies the proper account for a toll as a vehicle passes the toll station. Cameras and computers identify the vehicle type and automatically charge the corresponding toll to the account. Cameras also capture violators' license plates so the system can mail a ticket to the vehicle's owner.

An E-ZPass or Fast Lane transponder can be used to pay the tolls in nine eastern seaboard states, and eventually will be able to communicate with every tollbooth between Maine and Florida, said Terry O'Brien of the New York State Thruway Authority. Customers may soon be able to use their transponders to pay for a range of other things they buy while in the car, such as drive-through fast food (a pilot program is running at a McDonald's in Port Jefferson, N.Y.), rest-stop gasoline, and parking (JFK airport lots will begin accepting E-ZPass next year).

''An E-ZPass lane processes 900 cars an hour compared to about 400 for a staffed lane,'' said Mr. O'Brien. ''That means less congestion for everyone.'' What's more, computers constantly analyze E-ZPass data to identify traffic tie-ups on bridges and other sensitive locations, so before anyone even reports an incident that is causing a delay, emergency personnel are dispatched to get traffic moving again.

E-ZPass was a great leap from old toll technology, but is actually a few lengths behind the state of the art. Drivers must slow to about five miles per hour to pass through the tollbooth, a limitation not of the technology, but of the old toll plazas.

''What we did was shoehorn 21st century technology into 1950's-era tollbooths,'' Mr. O'Brien said. The transponders could actually work at full highway speed with no need for drivers to slow down.

To make E-ZPass quicker, New York, for example, would have remove its old tollbooths, an enormous expense. Connecticut, however, has already completed that work. And, in many ways, starting from scratch is an advantage, Mr. Regan said. Should the state decide to implement tolls, it could establish a program like E-ZPass and hang all of the necessary electronic readers and cameras from overhead stanchions similar to the ones used for signs. Drivers with transponders would never have to so much as tap the brakes to pay their tolls.

The bigger logistical problem, and cost, would be charging the drivers who didn't have a transponder (in New York, about half of all transactions are still done with cash). There are a number of ways to handle this.

On the toll roads in Orange County, Calif., cash-paying drivers are diverted to special exit lanes where they move through unmanned tollbooths with automated change machines and coin drops. But creating such infrastructure is costly, and there isn't room along Connecticut's busiest highways, Mr. Regan said.

Technology could solve this hurdle, too. On Highway 407, outside of Toronto, a transponder system is paired with infrared video cameras that photograph every vehicle's license plate as it moves by and, after eliminating the cars that pay with a transponder, identifies the owners of cars that don't and mails them bills for their road use.

''The system collects 250 million Canadian dollars a year without a single toll collector or anyone needing to stop anywhere,'' Mr. Regan said. But all that data processing is costly and ''they wind up with half a million accounts that owe $2 each.''

That's an administrative nightmare, but the private company that owns and operates the highway expects to eventually turn a profit on it. ''The implementation cost was huge, but our perception is that electronic tolls are more efficient and more cost-effective,'' than manned tollbooths, said Dave Albers, of 407 Express Toll Route.

''That's not just from the standpoint of collection, but security,'' Mr. Albers added. ''Employees on the road can be robbed or can be the ones dipping their hands into the till.''

Still, about 4 percent of 407's traffic winds up unpaid, he said, in large part because the electronic system communicates with only four Canadian provinces and 39 American states.

A better system, and the most innovative toll technology anywhere, Mr. Regan said, is City Link, a stretch of highway that bypasses Melbourne, Australia. There, too, frequent drivers can get a windshield transponder. Anyone without one must purchase day passes by phone, on the Web, or at roadside kiosks. Otherwise they are subject to a ticket.

''They pay with a credit card and their license plates get put on a list of valid users for that day,'' he said. So the only drivers that the cameras and computers have to identify and bill are violators, a considerably smaller percentage of the traffic. City Link's electronic tolls process 725,000 vehicles per day, Mr. Regan said.

James Boice, chief of planning for the State Department of Transportation, said Connecticut's problem with implementing an electronic system would also be the difficulty of tracking down out-of-state drivers and getting them to pay up. ''If you took a picture of somebody's license plate from Missouri, you'd have to send it to Missouri, try to find out who that guy is, send him a bill, and try to collect on that bill,'' he said. ''I'm very skeptical of the collection rates that you'd get.''

Such a program could work if administered by the federal government, which could keep all vehicle records in a single database, he said. And that might be something that happens as the federal government looks at the future of highway financing. But without federal oversight, the amount of state-to-state communication that would be required would be prohibitively difficult, he said. So unless a national system is created, Connecticut would need to build off-ramps for drivers paying with cash, Mr. Boice said, and that would likely create a public outcry.

''You'd have to start taking property to add on five or six toll lanes on the side of roads in urbanized areas, and there would be opposition to that,'' Mr. Boice said.

Even if there were a way to create tolls without expanding the footprint of the highway, stopping cars, or creating road hazards, though, the public still might not favor what amounts to an additional tax.

''I don't think drivers should be paying more for the roads given the magnitude of use by commercial vehicles, which are responsible for so much of the wear and tear,'' said Ms. Maloney at the coffee shop. ''If the state needs more revenue, I would support more rigorous attention to trucks that are not obeying the law.''

Before Tolls, a Hurdle

EVEN the staunchest opponent of tolls would probably concede one point: collecting fees from drivers could bring money into the financially strapped state treasury. But it is not quite that simple, according to State Department of Transportation officials.

When tolls were removed in the 1980's, the state began receiving federal money for improvements and maintenance of the interstates.

''Connecticut's income on the federal side and the loss of the tolls was almost a wash,'' said Charles Barone, the agency's transportation planning director.

If tolls returned to the interstates, the federal funds would dry up -- at least for toll roads.

What's more, new tolls on interstates are barred by federal law and require special approval by Congress, which could demand the repayment of millions or even billions of federal highway financing already received.

One transportation department official, who asked not to be named, said that bringing tolls back would be ''like trying to put the toothpaste back into the tube.''

Still, there are a few ways that Connecticut could add tolls without jeopardizing federal financing. It could put them on state highways, such as the Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways, which do not receive federal money.

Also, the interstate toll ban offers an exception for tolls on newly rebuilt bridges and tunnels, so long as the fees are used to maintain the crossing and pay off the loans used to build it.

Another exception provides for pilot programs designed to reduce traffic congestion, such as permitting solitary drivers to buy their way into carpool lanes, which releases some of the burden on the main line. It is also possible that a toll that used variable pricing to discourage rush-hour traffic could be approved by Congress as a pilot program.

But, James Boice, chief of planning for the transportation department, said even though certain strategies could raise revenues without jeopardizing federal financing, the outcry would likely be huge. For that reason, tolls are unlikely to return. ''Not in the foreseeable future,'' he said. JOSH GARSKOF

Photos: With the state's budget crunch, there is talk of putting tolls on some highways. But technology has changed since tollbooths, including the one in Greenwich, above, disappeared 14 years ago, prompted by a fatal accident in Stratford, left. Now, drivers can zip through tolls without even slowing down, like at one in Toronto, inset, that uses video cameras that photograph every vehicle's license plate. After eliminating the cars that pay with an E-ZPass-like transponder, the system identifies the owners of cars that don't and mails them bills. (Barton Silverman/The New York Times [Greenwich] and Sara Krulwich/The New York Times [Stratford])