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Commentary: Bridging the tech gap – and the Susquehanna

From time to time, two competing technologies exist in parallel situations for an extended period prior to one dominating, and supplanting, the other.

Back in the tape age, there was a great debate among tech heads as to whether Beta or VHS was the better format for videotape. For a while, both were available at Blockbuster and other video stores. Beta supposedly had superior sound quality and equally good picture quality, and the tape cassettes were smaller, so that style of videotape had a loyal following. But the following got smaller and smaller, and eventually Beta tapes were phased out.

Of course, not much lasts forever, and VHS (an acronym for the rather bland Video Home System) has long since been replaced with various incarnations of video disks, DVDs, which provide better picture and sound quality than any kind of tape, and also are more convenient.

There's an array of products that take reasonably similar approaches to doing the same thing that manage to co-exist for awhile, only to have one win out in the end: vinyl discs and audio cassette tapes, Polaroid and cassette film, bias-ply and radial tires. Give it some thought and a few will probably pop to mind.

This has been bouncing around in my head for a few months since it became evident the old bridge stickers for locals wanting to make regular Susquehanna River crossings on the Route 40 Hatem Bridge would be going the way of Beta.

For those Harford County folk who have never gravitated to the eastern frontiers of northern Maryland, the stickers may have been a public policy that escaped notice.

Essentially by getting a universal product code type sticker for your personal vehicle, for a cost of a few dollars, it was possible to make unlimited crossings of the river between Havre de Grace for however long the sticker was valid.

The state got some toll money, without disrupting cross-river commerce, and there was no need to put a staff person in the sticker lane to collect tolls.

The system pre-dated the E-ZPasses that came into being more than a decade ago, but the technology was every bit as cutting edge for its day. I'm confident in saying, without having first-hand knowledge, that it would have been possible to set up sticker readers at every location where there are E-ZPass readers, and that could have ended up as the dominant technology. Even so, E-ZPass does have its advantages, notably that it can rack up tolls from vehicles moving by at a pretty good clip of 40 or more miles per hour.

The universal product code style stickers, it turned out, constituted a good enough technology that it was able to coexist with E-ZPass for many years, right up until the beginning of this month.

So now the sticker readers are turned off and it takes an E-ZPass membership, or a fistful of dollars, to get across the Susquehanna on Route 40. (It's still free, though generally inconvenient, to cross on Route 1 at Conowingo Dam).

Which brings me to what I regard as the biggest problem with the change. No Luddite, I have no qualms about making the move from stickers to E-ZPasses. What bothers me is that an entirely different approach wasn't taken.

For many years, there has been a move afoot to find a way to make a footbridge over the Susquehanna to link the increasingly popular Greenway Trail that runs along either bank from Conowingo Dam to Havre de Grace and Perryville on the respective shores.

This is a project that promises to cost many millions of dollars. A river the size of the Susquehanna isn't forded easily or cheaply. Furthermore, the Route 40 bridge was built to carry the bulk of Northeast Corridor traffic across the river, but it was replaced as the primary conduit nearly 50 years ago when I-95 opened to traffic. Except on those occasions when I-95 is blocked or on a few holiday weekends, the Route 40 crossing is not particularly busy and most of those using it are local folks.

So why not do away with the tolls, limit the Route 40 bridge crossing to two lanes of traffic and use the other two lanes to establish a footpath crossing?

The answer, of course, is the same as the answer to the question of why stickers were eliminated in the first place: Money.

The sticker system, as a toll function, was widely regarded as a bargain by people who used it, and the cost of crossing is going to go up substantially as the E-ZPass system is fully implemented at the Hatem Bridge. In Maryland's current financial climate of demanding excellence and refusing to pay for it, the state government won't be entertaining any revenue reductions any time soon.

By the same token, what is cast in political concrete today can be the shifting sands of public policy a few months along. Just as the legislature acted to replace stickers with E-ZPass, it can act to do away with tolls and convert half a bridge for use by pedestrians.

For now, that's likely to be regarded as a crackpot idea, but if enough people ask why not, eventually it could become the kind of idea everyone thinks of as a natural solution.

Don't hold your breath, though.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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