E-ZPass users in the Buffalo area soon will enjoy life in the faster lane, thanks to changes planned by the State Thruway Authority.
The authority over the next six months will convert 16 E-ZPass lanes on the Mainline Thruway and Niagara Thruway in metro Buffalo to "higher speed" lanes, allowing drivers to pass through the electronic toll collection booths at 20 mph. Currently, all E-ZPass lanes in the Thruway's Buffalo Division require vehicles to slow to 5 mph.
The quicker lanes should improve traffic flow during peak commuting times, said Cindy Blest, toll division manager for the Thruway's Buffalo Division.
"Oh, yes, this will definitely have a positive impact for commuters because so many of them use E-ZPass. They should get through the tolls much faster," Blest said.
She also predicted speedier trips for commercial traffic.
While no firm dates have been established to have the higher-speed toll lanes up and running, preliminary work is under way to change signs and do other preparatory activities. The conversions, at a cost of $1.35 million, are expected to move full-speed ahead when spring weather arrives.
The new, 20-mph lanes will be added at the following Thruway interchanges: Exit 49/Depew (two lanes); Exit 55/Lackawanna (two); Exit 56/Blasdell (two); Exit 57/Hamburg (three); Ogden Street and Black Rock toll barriers on the Niagara Thruway (two each); and North Grand Island Bridge (two).
The speedier lanes will not be available at the Williamsville toll barrier due to pedestrian traffic concerns. However, Williamsville toll plaza will be getting "highway speed" E-ZPass lanes as part of an overhaul planned for 2008. That toll barrier will see two more exit lanes switched to dedicated E-ZPass use this year.
South Grand Island Bridge will not see a change in its E-ZPass collection program because its physical layout is not conducive to higher-speed lanes.
The authority also will add five more lanes dedicated exclusively to E-ZPass users in its Buffalo service area, bringing the total number of electronic toll lanes available here to 19.
"Our customers have asked for more E-ZPass lanes and additional higher-speed lanes, and this plan does just that," said Thruway Authority Executive Director Michael R. Fleischer. "With these improvements, approximately 56 percent of Thruway toll lanes will be available for dedicated E-ZPass use."
Statewide, the authority will invest $3.5 million to make E-ZPass improvements.
Currently, 47 percent of Thruway toll lanes are available for dedicated E-ZPass use. A total of 202 of the 424 toll lanes now in operation are dedicated to E-ZPass users. When the authority completes its upgrades, that number statewide will climb to 238.
The number of higher-speed toll-collection lanes systemwide will climb from 18 to 58. In addition to the higher-speed lanes planned for metro Buffalo, another 10 will be installed within the Thruway's Buffalo Division, an area that extends from Exit 45/Victor to Exit 61 at the Pennsylvania state line.
The planned E-ZPass upgrades received high marks from the AAA of New York State.
"The authority's plan will allow E-ZPass tag holders to move safely through toll plazas at higher speeds, thereby increasing toll lane capacity," said state AAA spokesman John A. Corlett. "Consequently, waiting times at toll plazas will be significantly reduced, saving drivers time and reducing fuel consumption and emissions."
As of January, more than 2.2 million Thruway drivers were using E-ZPass. About 56 percent of total toll transactions in 2005 were done via E-ZPass, accounting for 60 percent of toll revenues.