Big conversion to sticker tags begins on Oklahoma's turnpikes - 1.2m tags, 377 lanes
By Peter Samuel
By early August Oklahoma's turnpikes should all be fully equipped with TransCore's dual mode E6 readers (Encompass 6) to allow a start on a two to three year transition away from the existing hardcase/battery-equipped Allegro transponders to eGo Plus sticker tags. The reader infrastructure will consist of E6 readers installed in 377 toll lanes (plus 23 spares purchased) on ten turnpikes - 400 readers for $6m, they tell us.
Yesterday the Authority placed their first order for new eGo Plus (ISO 18000 6B) tags - 278k sticker tags @$9.40 apiece and 11k exterior mount tags @ $26ea (mainly for motorbikes). They expect the first deliveries within weeks.
Total cost of the 289k eGo+ tags: $2.92m.
85% done with reader switchover
David Machamer director of toll operations at the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority (OTA) says that as of this week they've switched out about 325 lanes from the old Allegro/ATA dual mode protocol readers to the new E6s which read Allegro and Super eGo protocols (or any two of several other protocols if needed).
They only have about 50 more to do before they are fully converted overhead.
The first of the new E6 readers went live on the OTA system in August last year so they've been switching over 30 to 40 lanes per month since then. Lanes are usually closed between two and six hours for the switchover. They've tried to avoid rush hours. The most inconvenience to motorists has been at some single toll lane ramps where they've had to close the whole ramp during the switchover.
"We had trailer message signs up there for a week ahead warning motorists the time when the ramp would be closed, and that they'd have to use an another interchange. That seemed to work. We didn't have complaints," Machamer told us.
Oklahoma Turnpike learned from the experience of others who have done much the same conversion - NTTA (Dallas), HCTRA (Houston), Kansas Turnpike and Florida - officials say.
Major advantages seen in the transition to sticker tags are:
- unit cost about half the present hardbody Allegro tags
- greater read accuracy
- simplified shipping and handling (mailed in envelop)
- potential interoperability with neighboring states
Present tags, like most hardcase transponders are portable with velcro style press-on/pull-off attachment strips which enable households to swap transponders between vehicles.
However the portability of the hardcase transponders has the serious disadvantage that motorists forget to mount their transponder in a certain proportion of trips, leaving it in a handbag, in the glovebox or central console or under the seat, resulting in non-reads.
Such motorist forgetfulness adds up to quite a load for the violation/video toll processing.
The sticker tags are strictly one-tag/one-car because once they are stuck to the windshield they cannot be removed without breaking their metal foil antenna and rendering them kaput.
Mid June first 500 sticker tags to go to customers
Mid June some 500 sticker tags will be issued to about 500 PIKEPASS enrollees, mostly in the Oklahoma City area for their first rollout, and testing, says Jack Damrill OTA public relations director. If all goes well in August they plan to issue up to 25,000 systemwide, split about equally between passenger car and commercial accounts.
Eventually they expect to use about 1.2m to replace the 970k Allegro tags currently in use and expect to need 1.6m allowing for likely increased uptake.
As customers are issued the sticker tags they will be asked to "dispose of" (trash) the old tags.
OTA plan to send out sticker tags to the motorists with the oldest Allegro tags first, and to replace the newest Allegro tags last. That will enable them to get the most life out of existing Allegro batteries.
After three or four years they expect the last Allegro tags to be gone.
The Allegro battery life has generally been in the 5 to 7 year range. Sticker tags are batteryless, powered by the reflected energy of the incoming signal from the reader, so have a life limited only to the life of the windshield.
Two color coding
OTA sticker tags will be issued in two colors - red and white.
White ones will go to cars and other light vehicles while red will go to heavy trucks (5 axles and more). The idea is to allow state troopers to readily identify any trucker who might enroll as an automobile to get the lower toll rate for his 18-wheeler.
But OTA is also upgrading their vehicle classification system to count axles at speed at open road toll points.
Third generation technology, second transition
It's the third generation electronic toll (ET) technology Oklahoma Turnpike is moving to.
The first ET system was an ATA (American Trucking Association) protocol tag from then Amtech (now TransCore) back in 1991 that gave a decade of service. Those tags were unusual for the time in that they were read-only but battery equipped - because of the need to amplify the signal with high mounted readers at some plazas.
In 2001 they did their first upgrade to Allegro protocol tags, very similar to the Title 21s in use in California and Colorado. They were also battery powered mainly to give a 'toll paid' beep. The 2001 readers were dual mode ATA/Allegro protocols. They ceased supporting the ATA tags by 2003.
OTA has ten turnpikes which collected around $197m in tolls in 2008, the last year for which there is a full financial report. Operating expenses are $75m for cash flow of $122m. After depreciation and amortization of $76m, they have a net of $47m. That just about covers interest expense on outstanding bonds.
The toll revenue of $197m came from passenger vehicles $115m, trucks $81m. They have some heavy trucking routes. Turner Turnpike and Will Rogers Turnpike both collect more toll revenue from trucks than cars.
Transactions overall were 146m (av 400k/day) split about 91% cars, 9% trucks, whereas the revenue split was 58% cars, 42% trucks.
Electronic toll collection via the Oklahoma brand PIKEPASS runs about 65% to 35% of transactions, and 54% of revenue to 46% cash. The difference is due to ET being used more heavily by short distance commuters while long distance trips - involving more out of state traffic use cash more.
Before the E6 readers there has been no ability for Oklahoma Turnpike to read out-of-state tags or for PIKEPASS to be read in neighboring states.
The move to 6B tags and E6 readers will make Oklahoma technically compatible with important neighboring states like Texas and Kansas as well as with Florida, North Carolina and Georgia that send and receive a considerable amount of traffic through Oklahoma, or are visited by Oklahomans.
Reaching contractual agreements on file handling and financial procedures - 'back office' arrangements - would be needed for interoperability to be implemented. But they will have the technical basis laid once the E6/6B system is in place.
That could boost the transponder transaction percentage beyond the present numbers and reduce operating costs.
Senior OTA staff have been active in the Alliance for Toll Interoperability led by North Carolina Turnpike.
For the next year or more however their priority will be getting the 6B tags onto Oklahoma windshields and achieving high accuracy reads.