Delaware moving to break toll booth bottleneck with open road tolling on I-95

November 14, 2009

At last Delaware is moving to break the worst traffic bottleneck on the east coast - the Newark DE toll plaza on the I-95 Turnpike. Regularly the present Newark DE toll plaza causes ten and 20 mile backups and delays of an hour or more, making it the worst source of congestion in the New York-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington DC corridor.

Plans for improving throughput here go back to about 1990.

A $50m stimulus grant from the Obama administration has allowed the previously unfunded project to move ahead.

Until the feds came up with money DeDOT had it vaguely scheduled for the "out years" of their present longterm plan. Used mainly by out-of-staters any government in Delaware responsive to its electors always seems to have higher priorities. (NOTE: An DelDOT official contests this saying they are very concerned with tourism, the state's image and interconnectivity. But we think it's political reality reflected in less severe bottlenecks on the state's DE1 having been eliminated with open road tolling in 1999 and 2004 - editor)

But with federal money flowing freely and permitting and planning long since done, the project is suddenly a 'go.'

Delaware DOT has begun procurement on the toll plaza rebuild with the aim of beginning construction May 2010 and completing the project in the summer of 2011.

Rebuilding under traffic is going to be tough, especially under the volumes experienced here.

Darren O'Neill, Newark I-95 project manager, says the contract guidelines will go into considerable detail on conditions for taking lanes in order to minimize construction congestion. The rebuild of the DE1 Dover toll plaza for open road tolling three or four years ago has served as a trial run for DelDOT in managing the challenging I-95 toll plaza rebuild.

The toll plaza handles an annual average 100k veh/day with peak day flows of 140k. By our calculation the 20-lane plaza has a maximum one-direction capacity of around 5200 vehicles an hour (400 by 13 lanes including the use of 3 reversibles). But the highway on either side consisting of 2x4 lane roadways sometimes feeds 8,000 veh/hour (4x2000 veh/hour) into the toll plaza.

8000 into 5200 is 1.54 or 54% more vehicles than the toll lanes can handle.

Plans provide for rebuilding the toll plaza involve taking away reversible lanes in the center to get space for 2x2 highway speed open road toll (ORT) lanes. There will be twin staggered toll plazas of seven cash stop-to-pay toll lanes on each side of the ORT lanes. see diagram nearby

By our calculation this will increase the one directional capacity about 30% from 5200 to 6800/hour.

Officials admit it is something of a compromise. 6800 is still short of the 8000 potential flow on the four travel lanes coming into the toll plaza from each direction per hour. They would have preferred to build at least 2x3 open road toll lanes rather than 2x2.

2x3 ORT lanes is 6000 veh/hr plus five stop-to-pays (5x400) would give you the 8000 capacity. But for that to work there would have to be a 75/25 split E-ZPass transponders/cash, a radical shift to electronic tolling from the existing 51/49 split. Or they could allow camera tolling through the middle.

A bigger issue for now is cost. More than 2x2 open road toll lanes would require lengthening the project for safe merge/diverge movements and require rebuilds of bridges carrying cross traffic over the turnpike. The high end plan with longer highspeed lanes was adopted in the 1990s but cost around twice the price of the present plan because of the bridge rebuilds needed and extra land acquisition.

Open road or all-electronic

Then there's the big question of how will long cash lanes will be needed.

Newark toll plaza is a major underpinning of the Delaware economy, bringing in $120m/year - an amount now larger than Delaware gets in gasoline and diesel fuel taxes. Over 90% of tollpayers at the Newark plaza are from outside the state. Northern Delaware is just a short distance from Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, so they rely on other states' motor registry databases to identify anyone who doesn't pay.

An operations guy at DelDOT says the problem isn't technology anymore. Cameras and optical character recognition work great. And it isn't even lack of interstate cooperation. It's the inaccuracy of state motor registry databases. People  move and don't notify the motor registry of their change of address. As many as 20% of addresses are inaccurate, he says.

It's a big problem for any kind of open road tolling not to speak of being a problem for law enforcement an national security. It has to be solved and they think it will be solved in something like a five to ten year time frame. Meanwhile they need to relieve congestion with a fundable, practical plan.

Environmental permitting in the years 2003-5 produced the present plan, having rejected the low end no-build and two relocations of the toll plaza.

Even so a complete rebuild of the Newark toll plaza and associated buildings and two pairs of full standard open road lanes would have cost around $80m to $90m. The plan being implemented saves nearly half that cost by making do with the existing administrative building and squeezing the shoulders a bit at bridge piers.  They got a design exception for the pinched shoulders.

From 20 stop lanes to 4 ORT and 14 cash

The present plaza arrangement is a two-directional plaza of fifteen stop-to-pay/roll-through toll lanes and a staggered or satellite plaza with five more stop lanes further north for northbound traffic.

Under the reconstruction plan two extra stop lanes are added to this satellite plaza which becomes the seven lane stop-to-pay northbound plaza. A bunch of toll lanes are taken away from the east side of the main 15 lane plaza to provide space for the two directions of twin highway speed lanes plus their shoulders and median and side barriers.

The project extends from just half a mile (750m) from the Maryland line at Otts Chapel Road overpass 2800m (1.75 miles) to the DE896 interchange.

Toll system integrators are being qualified by Delaware DOT. Bidders on the prime design-build contract will be able to select the system integrator of their choice from the list of qualified when that is advertised next month.

Meanwhile to make all this work they need to improve data bases or find other ways of billing and collecting from the drivers who fly through without a transponder.

TOLLROADSnews 2009-11-14 CORRECTIONS 11-16 9:00

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