ET:Garden State Parkway E-ZPass Start-up
By Peter Samuel
Northern New Jerseys toll roads saw electronic tolling (ET) in the form of E-ZPass begin December 1. The distinctive purple signs with the E-ZPass logo appeared over toll lanes of the Garden State Parkway at its Hillsdale mainline plaza and at some of the nearby Paramus ramp toll lanes in Bergen county up the north end of the toll road.
ET got off to a start with 6 lanes wired for E-ZPass lanes out of 14 at Hillsdale, and with lanes also wired at the Paramus ramp plazas. The New Jersey facilities, without even issuing any tags of their own, have a large number of vehicles traveling their facilities equipped with E-ZPass tags tags issued by the Port Authority of NY NJ and used at the Hudson River crossings between the two states, as well as tags issued by the NY State Thruway and NY MTA B&T.
Three NJ toll authorities plus the state of Delaware form the Regional Consortium for Electronic Toll Collection (RCETC) which from a Chase Manhattan customer service center in Secaucus is issuing tags and maintaining customer accounts south and west of the Hudson River. (The Port Authoritys ET is presently handled by Lockheed out of the MTAB&T/NYSTA center on Staten Is but it is also a member of the Regional Consortium and supposed to switch over to Chase.)
The Regional Consortium (RCETC) with MFS as its prime contractor rolled out E-ZPass on the I-95 Delaware Turnpike plaza and the Atlantic City Expressway (run by the SJ Transp Auth) Nov 98 and then on the DE-1 toll road to Dover in April 99. A total of 700 toll lanes, virtually all, will be wired for ET, with flexibility about the number that are dedicated, or ET-only lanes.
NJ Highway Authority (NJHA) chairman James Buckelew said on the opening on his Garden State Parkway, Dec 1, that E-ZPass will move traffic faster through the toll plazas and provide more customer convenience. The NJHAs installation by MFS is moving progressively southward along the barrier and ramp plazas of this point toll system and is due to cover all toll plazas of the 278km (173mi) toll road on a rapid schedule by June 2000.
Installation work proceeds also on the NJ Turnpike. Being a trip toll facility ET cannot begin operating until all toll plazas in the system are up and running with ET readers on the turnpike. This is scheduled to occur by May 2000.
After all toll plazas have some lanes wired and operating, a second phase will begin in which readers will be placed above all the remaining lanes at the toll plazas for a total of 700 toll lanes at the four facilities. This completion of the system is due mid-2001.
In a statement for the GS Pkwy opening NJ Gov Christie Whitman extolled the virtues of ET saying it will eliminate the need for cash, tickets or tokens, but also promises to move traffic faster, cut down toll backups and reduce exhaust emissions and it can provide built-in discounts.
The Gov together with NJHAs Buckelew drove in a yellow Parkway pickup truck smashing through a paper E-ZPass banner to formally open E-ZPass in the north of the state in a ceremony attended by about 100 people.
The interoperability of the system with ET installations in NY and MA was emphasized in speeches together with plans to make it interoperable with MD, WV and PA. No mention however of VA joining the union!
There is now a hyphenless URL for the RCETCs website www.EZPass.com where customers can apply online for an account and tags. The RCETCs E-ZPass monthly statements will be mailed, faxed or emailed to customers according to their preference.
The RCETC offers two payment options. Check/cash accounts must be prepaid and involve a $10 refundable tag deposit and when the account falls below the greater of $10 or half a designated Replenishment Amount then it must be topped up. The vast bulk of patrons are expected to choose a credit card account, which the application form calls the [Prepare a gutsy groan] E-Ziest way to use E-ZPass.
Under this arrangement there is no tag deposit and whenever the account balance falls below $10 the credit card is automatically hit for a replenishment amount based on monthly usage. No need for the customer to do anything beyond keeping the credit card account in good standing. E-Z eh?
These are similar to arrangements northeast of the Hudson River.
Highway-speed ET Urged
Electronic tolling, while a big hit with motorists, continues to be politically controversial. Politicians and the media maintain pressure on the toll authorities to move to highway speed tolling. The NJ installations so far are retrofits to existing plazas with a 5mph (8km/h) posted speed limit, just like NY. Vollmer Assoc is doing a report for NJHA on approaches to highway speed ET for delivery next spring, NJ legislators were told recently.
A bill sponsored by assemblyman Alex DeCroce, who was active in abolishing HOV lanes, would legislatively require the parkway to implement highway speed ET within a year of the ET collection reaching two-thirds of total toll revenues at a toll plaza. Officers of the NJHA say they need 18 mths to two years to design and rebuild toll plazas for highway speed tolling and that the bill limits their ability to choose the optimum solution. Charles McManus said that highway speed tolling needs reconstruction of the highway for a half mile (800m) either side of the toll plaza to allow safe separation with Jersey barrier of cash customers from fullspeed ET.
There is also continued questioning of the viability of the RCETCs financing of this massive ET system which is novel in depending on a projected revenue stream from toll violators, especially the $25 administrative fee they are liable for, to finance the MFS/Chase system.
Violations Percentages Low
Paul Wycoff of the NEWARK START LEDGER (11/30/99) got access to RCETC data on violations processing for the Delaware and south Jersey toll facilities for four months since it began July 24. Wycoff reports the data show 45% of camera images as illegible compared to a projected 20%. 569k readable images of violators were obtained in the 4-month period of which 426k were pursuable after data mismatches and other problems caused them to be dropped. 13% of these or 56k got sent demands for payment and 7.5k paid up some $192k within the 30 days required for the first notice. These are way below projected percentages envisaged in the financial plans.
The business plan of the RCETC calls for $400m in evasion fees to be generated over 8 years to service bonds issued by a NJ state bank-type agency which in turn pays MFS the operator.
Ed Gross head of the RCETC says it is far too early to make judgments about the violations system. He says the lighting for the cameras is not working properly yet accounting for the 45% of images lost. And he says the agencies are deliberately not pursuing many violators to give patrons time to get used to the changes.
The LEDGER however quotes NJ senate critic Richard Codey (Dem): You are more likely to see the (laggard local football teams) Jets or the Giants win the Superbowl than to get caught blowing through an E-ZPass lane. Great soundbite!
SEC gets into Able
MFSs owners Able Telecom continue to have new problems. The previously announced takeover of the troubled company, and injection of new cash, by New York and Sydney investors seems to be on hold. Also there have been no announced developments in the troublesome civil suit with Sirit.
In another development Able has disclosed that it is under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission over a $39m issue. No more details are known. Able has had seven auditors in 10 years and about the same number of CEOs. Asensio & Co, a Wall Street researcher and stock trader continues to accuse Able management of inflating its net worth, exaggerating its earnings and defrauding its stockholders. Asensio has long predicted the imminent collapse of Able/MFS.
If Able becomes insolvent performance bonds covering the $500m RCETC job can be called against its former owner MCI/WorldCom which never managed to get MFS off the hook to Able and has continued to pump cash into its troubled semi-exsubsidiary. (Contact Ed Gross RCETC 732 247 0900)