HOUSTON TX:High Speed Violators Tackled

October 22, 1999

HOUSTON TX:High Speed Violators Tackled

Originally published in issue 43 of Tollroads Newsletter, which came out in Oct 1999.


Subjects:high speed violators VES

Facilities:Houston Hardy

Agencies:HCTRA TransCore ATS Harris County Toll Road Authority

Locations:Harris Co Houston TX


Houston’s Harris County Toll Road Auth (HCTRA) with almost half a million electronic toll tags in use is tackling high speed toll violators. It has signed a $3.1m contract with TransCore and American Traffic Systems (Scottsdale AZ) to install a new automated Violations detection and toll Enforcement System (VES) for its 38 HIgh Speed Electronic Toll (HISET) lanes.

HCTRA has four HISET lanes each at 8 mainline plazas, 2 HISET lanes at another mainline and four more on longer ramps on its Sam Houston and Sam Hardy toll roads in the Houston TX area. HCTRA collects in total about 240m tolls per year (640k/day) at 220 tolls lanes, but the 38 HISET lanes collect an amazing 100 million /year (270k/day) or close to 40% of the tolls. There’s one dramatic measure of the revolution electronics has wrought – less than a fifth of the toll lanes are well on the way to collecting half the whole system’s tolls!

Those HISET lanes, vertically separated with tunnels or overbridges for plaza staff and horizontally separated off from the manual, ACM and mixed toll lanes for safety reasons with hundreds of feet of Jersey barrier on the approaches, and on the departures from the plazas, are the harbinger of a revolution in tolling that has received scant recognition even in the industry. Toll operators have been understandably cautious about them. Will they be safe? Will enforcement of tolls really be possible in them?

Noone was quite sure so why make a big fuss about them? You might have to tear ‘em out and go back to 10mph “roll through” lane-constrained ET. That seems to have been the thinking behind the Let’s-Try- Before-We-Brag PR policy?

But Houston with more HISET traffic than anywhere else in the world is now fully committed. (407-ETR is not far behind at 230k, TCA in Orange Co CA does about 100k, GA-400 40k, 91X 30k, Denver’s E-470 20k, Moncton NB a lot of big thundering trucks and IL, the Geo Bush Tpk NTTA Dallas, DE-1, Orlando’s Western Exwy, Melb CityLink, Oresund and other places have it in train)

HISET has been safe in Houston, and actually violations have been extremely low. Of the 8.3m vehicles which passed through HCTRA’s 38 HISET lanes this September 5186 were violators, according to Mike Strech, HCTRA director of toll ops. That’s a violation rate of 0.06%. Compared to losses at unmanned automatic coin lanes of 5%, 10% and even more that’s trivial. But of course the rate only stays trivial so long as the toll enforcement remains credible.

And the current HCTRA system is expensive to enforce – 20 weekday staff are needed to view the video they currently use and to process the violations citations they issue. And as traffic in the HISET lanes grows they are struggling to cope with the 150 to 200 people/day who zip right through without a transponder. Citations take as much as a month to be delivered because of surges and backlogs in processing the enforcement video. Quite a few of the present pictures are too poor in quality to pursue the violator.

In place of video and the need to view blurry moving picture or freeze frame analog, the new system promises to provide state of the art lighting for optimum illumination of the rear of each vehicle, higher resolution digital cameras, optical character recognition (OCR) algorithms to process some automatically and the software and hardware to filter and allow zoom-in to improve the legibility of the picture when OCR doesn’t do the job and it has to go to operators.

Strech says he hopes the new VES will allow a much better job to be done by a staff half the size of the present office – about 10 people. They are aiming to get a citation in the mailbox of a violator in 5 to 7 days compared to 20 to 30 days at present. And they’ll more quickly pick up evidence of the travel patterns of flagrant regular violators and be able to target them individually with a police cruiser.

Very few people will drive past a human toll collector at a toll booth. There’s something about the presence of a sentient person there that inhibits all but one in tens of thousands from evading the toll by shooting right through the toll lane. But substitute a machine and one in ten or more will evade, unless there’s a known, credible violation detection and prosecution system. So an increasingly automated violations detection and toll enforcement system is a vital part of any modern toll facility.

Toll facilities are being opened up in order to minimize the nuisance to the motorist of the process of collecting the toll, and ideally this will be accomplished at normal highway speed. But as the road is opened up this way the temptation to evade the toll increases. Only fanatics or purists want to stop every violation, but it needs to be kept as small as feasible.

HCTRA’s new VES system is due to be operational by end-April 2000 and there will be much interest in how well it performs. (Mike Strech HCTRA 832 601 7910, Jim Tuton ATS 480 922 2100x230)

SEMANTICS: Violation Enforcement System (VES pronounced a ‘Vezzz’) is a term that makes no logical sense at all, which hasn’t stopped it from becoming an accepted bit of toll industry lingo. It is the payment of the toll that you want to enforce, not a violation. If there’s an evasion of the toll – a violation – you want to detect, document and prosecute that violation. We prefer to think of VES as standing for Violation detection and toll Enforcement System. (Violation enforcement is when that bastard of a cop in an unmarked car sits on your tail impatiently on a 2-lane road with the double yellow stripe down the middle, urging you on, and then books you when you exceed the speed limit.)

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