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Tolling Technology

As Rhode Island navigates its way toward the implementation of a tolling plan for trucks using the state’s highways, D.O.T. officials here could borrow a page from their neighbors to the north: The New Hampshire Turnpike system is one of the oldest in the country and features state-of-the art tolling technology that has cut down administrative costs and improved accuracy. This week Jim Hummel concludes our two-part series, hitting the road for a tutorial on how it all works.

 

Click here for Part 1 of this report.

 

SCRIPT:

For more than 60 years motorists passing through New Hampshire have been paying to use portions of the state’s highway system - and as technology has evolved they’ve used various forms of currency to do it.

The New Hampshire Turnpike System developed in the early 1950s because of congestion and lack of money. In 1955 the first automatic toll machine in the country was installed at Merrimack. EZ Pass arrived a decade ago, and open road tolling - using just gantries and no toll booth or collectors - first went online in May of 2010.

Bill Boynton of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation has had a front-row seat for the transition to transponders.

Boynton: ``Our big concern was when we pushed the button would it work? And that was not the problem, it worked from the start - just people getting used to the idea of electronic tolling, privacy concerns was also a part of it that we dealt with in law and now it’s very much just an accepted part of travel in New Hampshire.’’

As Rhode Island looks to install its own tolling system for trucks under the Rhode Works program, state officials here could learn a lot from their neighbor to the north, which has one of the oldest turnpike systems in the country. The technology in New Hampshire and other states has taken a huge step from the introduction of the EZ Pass system in the late 1980s.

Boynton: ``Most people don’t like the idea of tolling, yet a toll is a user fee; you’re paying for use of the highway. In our state most of our turnpike system is in the southern part of the state where the heavier traffic volume is, where the commuters are and it’s become an accepted part of travel. Now does that mean people divert and don’t go onto other roads? They can, but you know time is money and if you want to spend an extra 10 minutes going through traffic signals and two-lane highways, then that’s your choice, but that hasn’t been reflected in the increasing traffic volumes that we see on a regular basis in our turnpike system.’’

Boynton says the technology is sophisticated and nearly foolproof.

Boynton: ``Our gantries are 99.95 percent accurate. There’s three components to it: as you’re approaching the plaza there’s the identification of the vehicle at speeds between zero and 100 miles per hour - this gantry can identify the vehicle, the vehicles can be as little as three feet apart. Then there’s the classification of the vehicle, as to what kind of vehicle it is. How many axles does it have, how many tires, then it becomes part of the enforcement: is the read there for the transponder. If not, then that triggers the cameras for front and rear pictures, high intensity pictures, of the license plates. All of that takes place within a very few seconds. In addition to the gantry, there’s loops in the pavement, it’s pretty sophisticated in terms of all of this stuff that has to work. And occasionally we have maintenance, but in terms of accuracy and consistency I can’t remember an instance where we’ve had a day where somebody called and said something’s not working at the ORT lane. They’re like 100 percent accurate 24/7.’’

While New Hampshire will continue to use a combination of open road tolling and the option of toll booths like this station between Manchester and Concord, some states are transitioning to entirely open road tolling. Massachusetts plans to eliminate all of its booths and have gantries only by the end of this year - a mammoth transition going from 32 tolling locations to 16 gantries.

For those states the question becomes: how much do you spend to go after vehicles that don’t have transponders and therefore aren’t paying, either accidentally or intentionally.

Boynton: ``Somebody in a processing center, in our case, out of state, is reading these images and then they have to be compared and sent to division of motor vehicles in various states, make sure they know who they owner is, the process continues. Our high volume users from out of state are Maine and Massachusetts by far and we have what I believe is the first of its kind in the country, where we have reciprocity agreements that go back several years with both Massachusetts and Maine, whereby if you’re a chronic violator and have not cleaned up your account, when it comes time to register your vehicle, you’ll walk in and they say you have a problem here, you cannot register this vehicle until you clear up your account. That’s the hammer that proves to be quite effective in this process. So obviously if somebody is from Nevada or something and goes through it once it becomes somewhat prohibitive to pursue that person. But it’s probably not a good idea to be a chronic offender because we have other ways of making sure we catch up with you.’’

New Hampshire gives motorists who pass through without a transponder a chance to be proactive and pay online within seven days before hearing from the state.

Rhode Island D.O.T. Director Peter Alviti told us the state has hired the Jacobs Engineering Group out of California to oversee the design, construction, and implimentation of the toll program.

Hummel: ``New Hampshire gives them the option of going online and being able to do it, so you don’t have to chase them.’’

Alviti: ``Correct.’’

Hummel: ``Is that part of your plan too? Or is a camera going to take the truck, distinguishing it from the car, or the smaller truck and then say Mr. EZ Express from Delaware you owe X amount?’ Both ways?”

Alviti: ``I expect that we’ll be using both ways, although that again, is the reason we’re bringing a company like Jacobs in who has experience in many other states, New Hampshire being one of them, in how to implement this and get the best return for the dollar that you put out to collect.’’

Hummel: ``It eventually comes down to how much money do you have to spend to go after the money, doesn’t it?’’

Boynton: ``That’s right, that exactly right and you know it’s not something a lot of toll authorities would want to talk about but yeah, it’s really a cost-effective type thing. We really don’t want to be in the violation business and as I said we have a very low percentage of people who actually violate, so most of the time it’s done by accident. We were a little tougher initially and we just found we were chasing people all over the place and it really wasn’t productive from a customer service point of view.’’

While Rhode Island officials have been adamant that only trucks will be tolled Boynton said once the technology is in place, the ability to identify and toll all vehicles is readily available.

Boynton: ``If you’re able to classify a certain type of vehicle, there’s nothing preventing you from changing that classification.’’

While Rhode Island and New Hampshire have different goals and methods in tolling, the reason for both is the same.

Boynton: ``There’s virtually no states that aren’t facing infrastructure issues and we’re talking about long periods of neglect and that’s why we’re trying to play catch-up. For example with the stimulus year people thought, well you got your one year, what’s your problem? We needed 10 years of stimulus. So the cost of maintaining roads and bridges in this country has gone up astronomically. And while people think they’re already paid for, it’s no different than your house or your car: you have to continue to invest in them, and if you want to have a thriving economy in your state, you better have a good transportation system - otherwise people are going to decide to locate somewhere else.’’

In New Hampshire, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.