407's toll system hums - despite a few glitches
By Peter Samuel
407's toll system works well -- skeptics wrong
After all those delays, problems and forebodings of failure, the revolutionary toll technology on Canada's Highway 407 Express Toll Route (407-ETR) is at last up and running. And running beautifully, by most accounts. Contrary to fears that the toll road might be swamped by traffic, the start of tolling dropped weekday trips from 320k/day to around 105k/day, making even the traffic forecasters look pretty good.
The most important news is that the world's most ambitious exercise yet in automated toll taking (TRnl#15 May 97) is functioning pretty well.
"It's a fabulous system and we are absolutely delighted with it," said Margaret Kelch, who was this month moving out of the 407 Operations Center where she had been chief exec of Canadian Highways Management Corportation, the group staffing and managing the highway operations including the tolling. (She's just been promoted to Chief Operating Officer of the parent Canadian Highways International Corp.) Kelch's enthusiastic sentiments were shared by others involved. The mix of electronic transponders (e-tags) for regulars and license plate reads of occasional users, alol at full highway speeds is generally working smoothly. Automatic license plate recognition has been "slightly better" than contract specs, we were told. Dennis Galange, president of the Ontario Transp Capital Corp, the provincial agency which financed and owns the 407 said: "We are very pleased with the system. It is a very robust system, very adaptable and efficient and it is working well. We did a lot of work on it during the free use period (when (300407 the road was open but not tolling). We worked most of the bugs out, so the start-up went pretty well."
Daryl Fleming an Atlanta-based consultant to Hughes, the toll supplier and system integrator for 407 told us: "It was a bit of an anti-climax. We switched the stuff on and almost everything worked as intended. Just a few small things needed tweaking. 'Most everything just hummed along fine. It was the smoothest startup I've seen." Fleming has been involved in electronic toll start ups on several US pikes.
Background: 407-ETR is the first complicated multiple interchange urban highway to offer non-stop tolling on-the-fly and the first non-stop toll road to accomodate occasional users not equipped with transponders (e-tags). The occasional users have their license plates read at highway speed by cameras mounted along with the radio frequency readers on grantries over the ramps. The gantries also accomodate vehicle detection and laser profiling gear to detect non-trnasponder carrying vehicles and to class vehicles by measured volume and shape. The laser detectors overhead alert the license plate reading cameras. In the case of transponders a passive tracking antenna keeps a fix on the position of each vehicle in the roadway to avoid misidentifications in the multi-lane situation on the ramps.
Electronic and license plate reads and profiling occur both on entry and at exit, and a central computer matches the reads to generate a trip. In the case of established accounts for those with transponders the account is simply debited. In the case of the occasional users read by license plate the system is online with the provincial moitor registry and looks up the tag numbers in the motor registry data base to generate a toll bill (including a 70c C$1 add-on/trip). Patrons receive a mailed monthly account similar to a longdistance telephone account listing time and place of each entry and exit and each computed toll (see reproduced account.) The toll system on 407 is also a first in applying different time-of-day toll rates (10c/km in peak hours, 7c/km next to peak hours and 4c/km other times for cars, and double and treble these rates for the other two classes of vehicles). The time variable tolls reflect the greater value to drivers of time savings on the free-flowing toll road and encourage use of scarce highway space off-peak.
407 is a first too for the laser profiling vehicle classification system and for the vehicle tracking needed to identify vehicles as they enter and exit the ramps. Tolls therefore are levied by matching vehicles at entry and exit, based on distance travelled, vehicle class and time-of-day.
Urban toll roads have long been plagued by the staff costs and by the greedy land requirements of football field sized toll plazas, and their patrons have been alienated by the stopping, queueing, creep-up, fumble-for-cash and wind-down-the-window routines that are part of traditional toll transactions. Many toll roads around the world have been retrofitted with electronic tolling to speed movement through plazas by regular users equipped with transponders and a few have e-toll bypass lanes to speed e-tag equipped cars right by the plaza. But 407-ETR is the first full toll highway to completely abandon cash toll collection -- to do without toll plazas altogether (leaving out of account 91-Express in California which only caters to transponder-users and tolls at a single point midway along its simple on-&-off configuration.) 470-ETR takes tolling away from the highway completely so that patrons can just drive the pike as if it were a free road and make their toll payment from their home or office just like a telephone or electric bill. The Canadian pike is therefore justifiably pitched as the "toll road of the future."
The verdict from 407 is: The future works. And motorists love it. The equipment is generally working well. The transponders get read at 99%-plus accuracy. Vehicle profiling works. License plates get read as well as expected, indeed a bit better -- around 93%. Which leaves the staff of 16 at the Video Exceptions Processing monitors working hard but not overwhelmed by the numbers that the automatic optical character recognition system cannot interpret with sufficient confidence. Most important, the various electronic, laser and video routines mesh and produce the required stream of toll billings.
Despite strong overall enthusiasm for the system the startup has not been without glitches:
Blackout on Day 6: The 407-ETR Control Center lost electric power for much of the evening on Day 6 of tolling, Oct 20, putting the mainframe computers down, causing a small amount of toll data to be lost and some late night motorists to get free trips. The "uninterruptable power supplies" at the Control center failed to work and a backup diesel system took a long time to get up and running. The blackout was attributed to a power surge in the area that triggered cutouts. Official spokemen told us the blackout incident was "minor" and that the center recovered "quickly" but some of those directly involved said there was some difficulty working out how to start systems up again. Dennis Galange told us there was some "sweating" there for a while, but problems were sorted out. One engineer told us the Control Center was not back up and working fully for about 8 hours. The good news is that the distributed processing and data storage of the $60m toll system worked. The roadside processors at each ramp stored both transponder data and digitized license plate images during the Control Center power outage, and most were able to send on a complete dataset for later processing. A technician told us most of the roadside units were able to store all their data until the Control Center processors came online again, but the memory of a handful of the busiest ramp units got filled to capacity and "dumped a fairly small amount of data."
Metalized windshields: The 407 operators were not prepared for the problem of metalized windshields, the metallic compounds in the glass designed to reduce sun glare, which also disrupt radio waves and prevent proper communications with inside mounted transponders. There was a small flurry of complaints that "It doesn't work" and the management company is rebating the C$1 premia and for now reading their trips via imaging, but billing them as e-tag holders. There are no plans at present for externally mounted e-tags often used for metal windshielded vehicles elsewhere.
Billing discrepancies: Some of our sources told us 407 was producing some strange toll bills with discrepant toll charges. Most were apparently caused by a single human error. Someone at the Control Center entered Oct 20 as the date for Canada's Thankgiving holiday (it was in fact Oct 13) so all tolls on Day 6 of tolling were discounted to public holiday rates though it was a normal working day. It was a "surprise unplanned bonus to our patrons," quipped Isabelle Frati of the Control center. She said the agency was not going to go back at its patrons for the extra dollar or so that each trip was inadvertently discounted. Another few complaints have been of motorists crossing under or over the toll road but not entering it, but of having their transponders read as if they had entered. If true this suggests some tuning of antenna beams and power levels is needed.
Out of e-tags: Another startup problem was a shortage of transponders. Several evenings before tolling started Oct 14 queues of people stretched outside the operations/service center on West Steele Av near the highway and demand was brisk at dozens of provincial motor vehicle centers where patrons could get their e-tags also.
"We are hand to mouth," said Pamela Wing, marketing director. As of end-Oct after 16 days tolling 80,000 e-tags were in use and deliveries from Mark IV and Hughes were being immediately mailed out to enrolled customers on the waiting list. Motorists who enroll to get a transponder but cannot be supplied are being forgiven the 70c toll premium normally levied on license plate reads.
Already 45% of transactions are by e-tag and the C$1 premium of imaged reads is likely to encourage that percentage to rise.
Straddlers: A goodly number of 407-ETR motorists are testing the system. The pike has all its toll gantries on entry and exit ramps and most of these ramps are 2-lanes and many 3-lanes wide. One observer told us he estimates no less than a quarter of drivers seem to be doing a lane straddle under the toll gantries, apparently thinking this may prevent them from being tolled. In fact the system is designed to toll independently of vehicle lane position. It tolls lane-straddlers just like lane-keepers. Some of the camera mounts have proved inadequate and are having to be replaced -- one of the few deficiencies found.
A person who has spent time in the Video Exceptions Processing Center, where they view pictures of license plates that the automatic optical character recognition system cannot interpret with sufficient confidence, told us there was one case of a driver arranging an old towel to hang out the trunk (boot) to obscure the license plate (tag). A number of drivers of commercial vehicles have been caught using transponders issued for car accounts apparently to reduce the toll rate, but the official told us they were easily caught because the laser vehicle profilers compare the vehicle class they measure with the tag account class.
Traffic numbers: Fears that the highway might be overwhelmed and that the forecasters had badly underestimated traffic (see our frontpager "Embarrassment of Riches" TRnl#18 Aug 97 p1) turned out to be wrong too. The major reason why the beginning of tolling was delayed 4 months was the 300+k vehs/day that appeared on the highway when it opened June 7. Officials from OTCC, CHIC, Hughes and the provincial Ministry of Transp all told us that Wilbur Smith Assoc (WSA) seriously underestimated traffic. The traffic forecasts have never been made public, but they said that the toll system was designed for much lower traffic volumes than seemed likely after the road opened in June. The guess then was that 150k to 220k trips/day would occur once tolling was imposed. There was also concern about a slow "ramp-down" toward an equilibrium volume after tolling, whereby a lot of drivers who had grown accustomed to the highway would continue using it for several weeks until hit with mailed toll bills. Managers were concerned that they might open and be unable to handle the volume of license plate images generated, that images would be "dumped" by the system, bills would be unable to be generated, and the word would quickly get about that "The tolling doesn't work....It's a free road" accentuating the problem. So CHMC they reorganized the two main processors to work in tandem and streamlined computer code to increase the system's capacity. And when it came close to a toll start-up the agency made a big deal of a "Countdown to tolling" in their radio ads and by positioning variable message signs on the ramps.
"We did not want anyone to be surprised by the beginning of tolling. We had so many signs for so long there was no way anyone could NOT know," said Pamela Wing the OTCC marketer. It worked. Traffic was 310k the day before and about 100k on toll-start day. It has grown slightly since.
Dennis Galange CEO of OTCC, provincial agency which owns the facility, told us he is guessing that traffic will grow to 140k or 150k/weekday over the next 3 to 6 months, a "retention rate" on the free use numbers of 45 to 50%. Wilbur Smith officials told us the free use start-up numbers were "very close" to their forecasts, not well above them as we reported. They modelled a variety of different toll rate options, and say the forecasts that used a toll structure similar to that adopted by OTCC were "very close" to the numbers actually on the toll road. And they say the retention rate in the region 30 to 40% was close to what they expected at the current "quite high" rush hour tolls, though they say average trip lengths are about 1km than they expected, indicating somewhat more long trips than they had forecast, and therefore better early revenue.
New section nearly ready: 36km of the 69km is open and operating. Construction proceeds on the remaining 33km which is contracted to open by Dec 98. In fact a strategic extra stretch (see map) of 13km between H-410 and H-401 -- to the west of the present western end at H-410 -- is almost ready now to open thanks to a "superb construction season," in the words of one of the engineers. The summer was unusually dry, allowing the builders to get way ahead of schedule on bridge decks and paving. Only minor works remain on the 13km stretch west to H-401 allowing a 10-month-early opening, though no decision on an opening has been made by OTCC. Since this near-ready stretch will plug 407-ETR directly into the busy H-401 the early opening of this next section could boost traffic on 407 considerably and help establish the project early as a solid financial success. The Ontario government has decided in principle to privatize the whole facility, and a successful start will be important in attracting investors. Major 407 extensions west to Hamilton and later eastwards have been promised by the provincial authorities, and consultants are now working on reocmmendations as to how these sections should be put out for concession.
Media: News reporting on the 407-ETR has been a mix. With the departure of over 60% of the free road traffic on toll-start day the headlines read "Gridlock returns to Highway 401 as tolls begin", "Motorists desert costly 407", "Highway 401 is back to being a nightmare again" and "Service charge shocks users." But the TORONTO STAR which earlier trumpeted safety criticisms of the pike gave it priceless positive publicity by staging a race between two reporters. The story by transport reporter Bob Mitchell began: "The mission was simple -- see how fast we could get to the Country Style doughnut shop at Yonge St...Our routes, one by Highway 401 and one by 407.
"Canada's busiest highway versus Canada's newsest expressway. A freeway versus a tollway.
"It was no contest. If saving time means more to you than saving money, taking the world's first totally electronic highway is -- with apologies to the Toronto Transit slogan -- the better way."
They had tossed coins outside the STAR offices and Mitchell who copped the 401 took 62 minutes to travel the 37km to the donut shop, while his colleague Calleja going via 407 did the 47km of his route in 31mins. Caleja had finished his muffins and was almost done with coffee by the time Mitchell came through the door.
Calleja said that while the new road "may take its toll in dollars at the beep, beep of a transponder it is not exacting a toll in stress." (Contact Pamela Wing OTCC 416 326 9384 Wingp2@epo.gov.on.ca, Daryl Fleming 770 734 9605 ISIFlem@aol.com, Martin Gray, Hughes 416 971 3337, Norm Wuestefeld, Wilbur Smith 203 865 2191, Mitch Patten, Canadian Highways 905 858 2083)