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Thruway must embrace technology: New York should replace its manned toll plazas with fully electronic collection

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s plans for the New York State Thruway include: freezing tolls through 2020, cutting tolls in half for a million frequent travelers and eliminating tolls altogether for agricultural vehicles. In addition, he has pledged to invest heavily in desperately needed roadway infrastructure improvements. That’s welcome news for Thruway travelers and for the state’s business and tourism sectors.

We need more, however, much more. The Thruway is decades behind the times. Years ago, Ontario provincial planners began to study the feasibility of providing an alternative route to relieve traffic loads on their busy Highway 401 across the northern perimeter of the exploding Toronto Metropolitan region. Even with 16 lanes at some points, the 401 still slows to a crawl during high-volume periods and resembles a scene from “Mad Max” in what passes for lighter traffic flows.

Construction began on the 407 in the late 1980s and in June 1997 it became the first fully electronic toll road in the world. As vehicles enter and exit the 407 ETR, they pass under toll bars at highway speed. Gone are the toll plazas with their traffic-choking booths to slow or stop traffic. Those with a 407 ETR transponder (similar to and made by the same manufacturer as the widely used E-ZPass) receive a monthly bill. Those without a transponder have their license plates video-ID’d and are billed at a much higher rate. Provincial licensing authorities enforce payment (pay up or lose your license) as do many cooperating state agencies in America.

Over the years, the 407 ETR has expanded and now spans nearly 70 miles. The electronic toll concept has grown as well. Nearly every toll road in the United States is electronic. New toll roads (yes, they are growing) are universally electronic. Most of the older toll roads have replaced their toll plazas and manned booths with the technology pioneered on the 407 ETR.

Meanwhile, in New York, we have one of the last toll roads with manned toll plazas. It’s clear that the Thruway Authority has its head in the sand when it comes to change. There are a host of reasons large and small why New York should join the nearly universal move to electronic toll collection around the world.

Issues like relocating the Williamsville toll plaza will vanish. Vastly more important are the human beings manning those toll booths, exposed to horrific toxins, risking their health, risking or shortening their lives in a job as redundant as the elevator operators that disappeared years ago. In addition to removing these folks from harm’s way, an electronic Thruway will reduce overall pollution dramatically, save time, save fuel, save money and reduce costs, eliminating the need to raise tolls in the foreseeable future.

Obviously, beyond the capital investments necessary to update the toll plazas, funds must be set aside to retrain and support the displaced toll collection personnel. However, these investments will quickly be recouped through the savings electronic toll collection will bring.

Another pressing reason to adopt the prevalent electronic model is the Thruway’s role in the state’s economy. Logistics play a central role in locating, expanding or even maintaining a production or distribution facility. Savings from going electronic will enable toll stabilization, perhaps even reductions, while providing funding for desperately needed infrastructure improvements. The current deplorable condition of Thruway roadways and bridges adds to the wear and tear on vehicles – just one more reason for business to locate elsewhere. Savings could also be used to eliminate the tolls on the Grand Island bridges and give Niagara Falls tourism a boost.

The key technical element is already in place; those using the Thruway by and large have E-ZPass transponders that will work just as well at highway speed as they do now in the 5 and 20 mph plaza lanes. Even without electronic toll collection, E-ZPass usage is increasing, up nearly 10 percent in the last few years to just under 77 percent of all Thruway traffic. That leaves the Thruway maintaining toll plazas at a cost somewhere well north of $36 million a year to serve just 23 percent of the traffic. Plus many, many times that amount coming out of the pockets of Thruway travelers in fuel and time wasted waiting in line. Add to that all of the pollution and congestion created by lines of idling cars at the toll plazas. This has to be the worst business model imaginable for Thruway customers.

Why does the Thruway Authority bury its head in the sand, blind to trends in the toll road world, unwilling to consider modernization? A quick review of the numbers offers some juicy clues.

In the most recent available budget (2014), the authority’s administrative budget totaled just under $10 million. The board of directors and executive suite alone spent just under a million dollars. Add $1.6 million in legal fees plus $632,000 for communications and media and you begin to get an idea why officials like things the way they are. It makes one wonder how much of that would evaporate if the Thruway were merged into our state Department of Transportation, where toll roads reside in most states.

Reviewing the toll roads that span America, you find almost as many variants as there are highways. There are even different models within some states. One factor is constant, however, toll roads all across America overwhelmingly use the electronic collection model.

Most states in the Northeast use the E-ZPass technology we have here in New York. There are several technology models similar to the E-ZPass transponders and readers in use in the Midwest, the South and the West. Illinois has one that it calls I-Pass, although the state also recognizes E-ZPass. The I-Pass is usable on E-ZPass toll roads as well. The usage levels in Illinois for discounted I-Pass travelers is close to 90 percent on the Chicago Skyway and the half dozen separate toll roads that traverse that state. Illinois also maintains small toll plazas out of the traffic flow at all exits, where the tolls are double in cash. That probably explains the 90 percent usage levels for this technology.

It seems that there are as many variants as there are toll roads; most states follow the 407 ETR model with no cash toll plazas, exactly what we should have done long ago. What is clear in New York is that an all electronic Thruway is long overdue. Everything we need is in place except the will to act. That would seem to be in the governor’s court, since the Thruway Authority seems to have no interest in anything beyond the status quo.

W.T. “Bill” McKibben is a Buffalo-based author and consultant.