State looks at all-electronic toll collection

An employee collects at a tool booth at the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

Maryland may eventually do away with tollbooths on the state's highways, bridges and tunnels and switch to electronic toll collection.

A preliminary report by the Maryland Transportation Authority concluded that converting its seven toll plazas is feasible but would cost as much as $180 million.

Transportation officials initiated the study as they look for long-term savings and ways to reduce travel time and increase highway safety.

"It's something we're interested in doing. It's something the industry is moving toward. But it's complicated and we're in the earliest stages," said Harold Bartlett, the transportation authority's executive secretary.

At least eight states are converting some highways to cash-free toll collection. And Pennsylvania is considering the elimination of cash toll collection on its turnpike.

Maryland's toll takers — there are 194 — would likely be shifted into openings at remaining toll sites or trained to process electronic transactions, Bartlett said.

However, Patrick Moran, Maryland director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, dismissed the likelihood of retraining and said electronic tolling would hurt toll takers.

"We take it as a serious threat," he said.

Some of the toll takers are AFSCME members, Moran said, but none are represented in collective bargaining. As a result of the electronic tolling plan, the union has proposed legislation that would allow it to represent toll takers, he said.

Maryland's only entirely electronic toll road is the recently opened Intercounty Connector between Interstate 270 in Gaithersburg and I-95 in Laurel. More than 85 percent of motorists who drive the connector use E-ZPass; the rest are billed by mail. Non-E-ZPass motorists pay 1.5 times the base rate.

Marylanders can sign up for a standard E-ZPass plan that gives users 10 percent off toll rates across the state, or for regional discounted E-ZPass plans with varying rates. E-ZPass users typically pre-pay for the tolled trips they expect to make in a specified period. If they go over their allotment, their credit cards are charged.

The technology that underpins electronic toll collection has been around for years. An E-Zpass transponder is placed on a vehicle's windshield or license plate. As it passes through a tollbooth, an overhead antenna reads the transponder and charges the E-ZPass account. If a vehicle cruises through an E-ZPass booth without a transponder, cameras photograph the car and its license plates — and the vehicle's owner is tracked down and fined.

The MdTA report suggested that the Francis Scott Key Bridge was "the logical first target" for conversion because E-ZPass is used by about 72 percent of motorists there — and that figure likely will increase to 85 percent by 2020, Bartlett said.

After that, the report recommended a conversion pecking order: Interstate 95 in Cecil County, the Bay Bridge, the Fort McHenry Tunnel, the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, the Nice Bridge on U.S. 301 and the Hatem Bridge on U.S. 40.

The conversion would not reduce revenue, assuming toll increases take effect as planned in mid-2013, the report found.

Phase two of the study, to be finished this fall, will address the logistics of conversion, including public education, staff retraining and methods of dealing with scofflaws who refuse to pay.

The biggest hurdle would be finding the money for the project, Bartlett said. Even a scaled-down version involving the most heavily-used E-ZPass toll plazas could cost as much as $125 million.

A spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic said all-electronic tolls would most likely benefit commuters and long-distance travelers.

"On the surface, it's a measure that we could support because of convenience and because it addresses safety concerns and fuel savings and would lower vehicle emissions," said Ragina Averella, AAA's manager of public and government affairs.

Electronic toll collection also reduces air pollution, a federal study found in 2002. It lowered hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide emissions by 40 percent to 63 percent and emissions of nitrogen oxides by 16 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation study conducted at the toll plazas at the Fort McHenry Tunnel, Baltimore Harbor Tunnel and Key Bridge.

Maryland began using M-Tag electronic tolling in 1999 and rebranded it as E-ZPass in 2001. But state law and penalties were slow to keep up with technology — such as cameras that take pictures, or video, of license plates. For example, motorists who used an E-ZPass lane without a transponder until recently were considered toll violators.

"But that's not the case anymore," Bartlett said. "We don't consider them violators. We're perfectly happy collecting video tolls."

With an eye toward cash-only toll plazas, transportation officials have asked the General Assembly for a law that defines how unpaid tolls and penalties are to be collected — a law that would allow reciprocal agreements with other states to suspend the motor vehicle registration of toll delinquents.

Bartlett said the toll increase that took effect Nov. 1 did include penalties for electronic toll nonpayment, with violators getting a bill for 1.5 times the base toll rate, which ranges from $1 to $15.

Unpaid tolls are not a big problem in Maryland, Bartlett said. In fiscal year 2011, collection notices went out for roughly 1.2 million unpaid tolls — 1 percent of all transactions — worth $2.6 million. Motorists have made good on nearly two-thirds of the notices, mailing in payments of $1.6 million. The authority is pursuing collection of the remainder.

Cash-free tolling is used on 47 miles of Florida's turnpike in Miami-Dade County and is being phased in on highways in Texas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, New York and North Carolina.

A recent report to Pennsylvania Turnpike officials recommended replacing toll plazas on the 545-mile highway with overhead gantries that would deduct tolls via E-ZPass transponders — or photograph vehicles without transponders, whose owners would receive bills. More than 60 percent of turnpike users are E-ZPass customers.

The proposed conversion, five years off, would cost about $319 million but would boost net toll revenue by $5 million in the first year and by about $21 million in the 10th year, in large part because the Pennsylvania Turnpike's 700 toll collectors would be rendered obsolete, the report said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Gus G. Sentementes contributed to this article.