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Cashless tolling is now permanent at all Maryland bridges, tunnels, express lanes

The tolls on Maryland’s bridges, tunnels and express lanes, which have not accepted cash fares since March as a coronavirus precaution, will be automated from now on, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Thursday.

Drivers may pay fares without stopping, either via E-ZPass or video tolls, which read license plates and send a bill in the mail, at all facilities, including the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway (Interstate 95), Fort McHenry Tunnel on I-95, Baltimore Harbor Tunnel on Interstate 895 and Nice Middleton Bridge on US 301.

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It’s the final step in the state’s decades-long shift to fully automated tolling — and the end of the road for the fewer than 100 remaining toll workers, the longtime faces of the Maryland Transportation Authority. Over the past three years, the agency has found them new jobs in state government, including recently as screeners at MDTA buildings, and helped them enroll in college courses.

Beth Orefice has worked as a Maryland Transportation Authority toll collector at the Fort McHenry Tunnel in Baltimore for seven years.

“In addition to historic toll relief and record-breaking progress on critical infrastructure updates, permanent all-electronic tolling is the latest step we have taken to save motorists time and money,” the Republican governor said in a statement. “By combining innovation, safety and savings, this truly is a win-win for the state government and for everyone who travels in our great state.”

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The state debuted fully cashless tolling at the Francis Scott Key and Thomas J. Hatem Memorial bridges last fall. Then, officials temporarily made all of the state’s tolls all-electronic in March as part of the COVID-19 response, before installing a new tolling gantry to make the Bay Bridge permanently cashless in May.

The new system aims to reduce engine idling for better fuel efficiency and reduced emissions, decrease congestion and increase safety, according to the MDTA.

The move also is expected to save the state money. The switch to all-cashless tolling is expected to save the transportation authority’s operating budget $10.6 million annually, beginning in the 2021 fiscal year, officials say — although they acknowledge there may be hiccups, such as the 22,000 speed warnings sent to Hatem Bridge drivers in error last fall.

“During the COVID-19 emergency, all-electronic tolling has been an operational success and has helped us protect our toll collection employees and the traveling public,” MDTA Executive Director Jim Ports said in a statement. “With this system now permanent, stopping to pay tolls in Maryland is a part of history.”

As Maryland transitions away from human toll collectors, the state is switching vendors for its electronic-tolling technology. The Board of Public Works split the 10-year contract for its third-generation tolling system into two separate contracts in 2018, following an industry trend.

Virginia-based Kapsch TrafficCom USA won the $71.9 million contract to install, operate and maintain its E-ZPass sensors, and Nashville-based TransCore LP won the $200.4 million customer-service contract. Both contracts are paid for with toll revenue.

Drivers who want to purchase an E-ZPass can sign up for an account at ezpassmd.com, and transponders with $25 in prepaid tolls also are sold at participating Giant Food and Weis Markets. A full list of retail locations is available at ezpassmd.com/en/onthego/locations.shtml.

Another payment option, “Pay-By-Plate,” will allow tolls to be automatically billed to credit cards at the same rate as the old cash tolls for all facilities except the Intercounty Connector and I-95 express toll lanes. For those facilities, Pay-By-Plate will save users 20% on their rates, compared to video tolls.

“Pay-By-Plate benefits infrequent toll customers as well as those who do not have an E-ZPass account,” the MDTA said.

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