Ever wished you could breeze through a highway toll booth without stopping to pay?
Early next year, Baltimore area commuters who use the Harbor Tunnel, the Fort McHenry Tunnel or the Francis Scott Key Bridge will have a chance to live that fantasy.
The Maryland Transportation Authority is preparing to unveil a new electronic toll collection system that officials say should ease rush-hour backups at the three Patapsco River crossings.
Similar to automated toll booths now operating in other urban areas, Maryland's high-tech system, dubbed "M-TAG," will allow motorists to use the two tunnels or the bridge without having to stop, roll down their windows and fumble for change.
M-TAG "will result in shorter waits at toll plazas and improved air quality due to decreased congestion," said Maryland Transportation Secretary David L. Winstead, chairman of the authority.
The M-TAG program is part of a $22 million upgrade of the state's toll collection system. Lockheed Martin IMS Corp., a New Jersey subsidiary of the Bethesda-based aerospace and defense firm, won the contract in 1996 to install new traffic monitoring and fare collection systems at Maryland's toll facilities.
State officials plan to kick off the new system by enlisting 60,000 to 70,000 motorists who now buy commuter ticket books. Officials expect to extend it later next year to trucks and buses and to other toll facilities.
Drivers who sign up for M-TAG will be given a battery-powered transponder to attach to the inside of their windshield or to their front bumper. The small device will send a coded radio signal to a computer that will identify the vehicle and deduct the toll from the motorist's prepaid account.
M-TAG users will pay $20 for 50 one-way trips in a 60-day period -- the same discount now offered to buyers of commuter ticket books. Motorists who pay with a credit card will get the transponders free and can have their M-TAG accounts automatically renewed. Those who pay by cash or check will have to leave a $10 deposit.
For safety reasons, drivers won't be allowed to zoom through the toll plazas at highway speed, though the system theoretically can handle it. At marked lanes for "M-TAG Members," drivers with transponders will be able to ease through the tunnel toll plazas at 5 mph. Maximum speed at two wider M-TAG-only lanes at the Key Bridge plaza will be 15 mph.
Those speed limits will be enforced to prevent collisions between transponder-equipped vehicles and slower-moving vehicles that stop to pay tolls in other lanes, said Lori Vidil, the authority's spokeswoman.
"You cannot have people going 40 miles an hour through a toll plaza and crashing into someone else," she said.
Even at limited speeds, the automated toll takers should move traffic through the toll plazas faster. M-TAG can process 1,100 or more vehicles an hour, Vidil said, compared with a maximum of 700 an hour for the most efficient toll collectors.
Transponder-equipped vehicles can use any lane in the three toll plazas, not just the "M-TAG Members" lane. But to avoid fender benders, M-TAG users will have to stop momentarily at booths staffed by toll collectors.
The authority will enforce the new system with video cameras that will record the license tags of violators. Any driver who goes through the M-TAG lane without a transponder -- or with an expired account -- will receive a notice in the mail demanding the full toll instead of the discounted commuter fare. Failure to pay promptly will draw a $15 fine, and ignoring the notices could lead to stiffer fines and suspension of the vehicle's registration.
Drivers will be able to tell if their transponder is working. Traffic lights behind the toll booth will flash green whenever a toll is
electronically paid. But the light will flash yellow if there is a problem with the M-TAG account or no signal was received.
Originally slated to begin earlier this year, the M-TAG system was delayed as Lockheed and the authority sought to iron out glitches. Officials expect to begin offering applications for M-TAG accounts later this month.
"There have been some delays," Transportation Secretary Winstead acknowledged, "but we've been trying to work through those and make sure the system works."
The toll plazas on John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway, Interstate 95 running north from Baltimore to the Delaware line, will be the next to be wired for electronic toll collection.
After that, state officials hope to add the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the Harry W. Nice Bridge over the Potomac River, and the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge over the Susquehanna River. Motorists who use that bridge, which links Havre de Grace and Perryville, have a more primitive automated toll system, paying $4 a year for a decal that allows them unlimited trips across the four-lane span.
Electronic toll collection has been used since 1989 in Louisiana and Texas, and has spread since then to at least 14 other states, notably the New York area, with its many bridges and tunnels. There are now 4 million automated toll tags in use, according to Neil Gray, government affairs director of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.
Maryland has joined with 11 other toll-facility agencies in the Northeast to develop compatible systems that one day might enable Maryland drivers to use their M-TAG accounts to pay tolls in other states.
The American Automobile Association, no fan of toll booths or anything else that slows drivers, welcomes the technological advance in taking motorists' money.
"Anything that can speed that process is certainly going to be beneficial if it works the way it's supposed to," said Liz Valuet, spokeswoman for the Maryland division of AAA Mid-Atlantic Inc.
Pub Date: 12/09/98