By Peter Samuel
Other places of course the gates have just gone. Many US toll facilities havent been gated for years. Many manual lanes have never been piked. Only a tiny proportion of motorists (one in thousands), they say, will drive by a toll collector at a toll booth, compared to one in ten or more wholl do that with a toll machine. But manual toll collection is in decline. The pikes are going.
There are exceptions of course. The Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Auth in New York City remains totally piked. And its toll officers are outfitted and trained like policemen. They will walk into the traffic, hold it up with arm signals, and will literally turn around a motorist without a transponder or toll money at a plaza, and send them back to where they came from. As a result few even attempt it. But this strict in-the-lane, police approach is regarded by most tollsters elsewhere as a quaint relic of some past practice, an eccentric exception to an inexorable trend toward an open toll road.
But the more open the road the greater is the temptation to motorists to just blow by without presenting cash, or a transponder. So physically the new toll road may be open, but if tolls are still to be collected, and that blow by temptation is to be blocked, there have to be effective systems in place to handle non-payers. Most of these have come to be known in the trade as Vezz for VES or Violation Enforcement System, an unfortunately quirky phrase that sprang from the mind of some unknown muddle-head, and was then repeated and caught on as a joke, since it expresses the exact reverse of what it intends.
It is toll payment which is intended to be enforced, and violation or nonpayment which is to detected, documented and deterred by a hopefully economical and efficient violation handling system.
The IBTTA established a committee to study this important issue and it has just issued a useful manual. The committee was called the Video Enforcement Systems Work Group, the word Video there bringing a new spin to VES!
This is important stuff since the more open the toll road is physically, the fewer barriers it presents by way of getting the motorist to slow and pay now, the stronger is the need for electronic systems and for institutional arrangements to enforce payment afterward. This is the issue at the heart of the future of tolling and the more clarity of thought that is applied here beforehand, the smoother may the road there be.
The title of the IBTTA manual reminds that a committee is invariably more longerwinded than any single member. The publication is called Successful Deployment of Toll Violation Enforcement Management & Violation Processing Systems & Requirements: A Resource & Implementation Guide. IBTTA should offer free copies to anyone who can speak that title fluently, accurately and without a pause midway for breath. Native-English speakers fully eligible.
Thankfully the Vezz Guide, as we shall call it, comes alive precisely because half the vezzes that it documents were, contrary to the title, UNsuccessful. So, like most manuals it is best read backwards from the case studies. Though the actual writing of the back part of the Guide (Case Studies) would score an F in a Grade 2 composition assignment it is important and useful stuff. And an intern journalist would be fired for writing up Orlandos B line toll road. Its named, guys, not after a letter of the alphabet that denotes a second-rate pike, but after the supposed traveling style of a bee, that buzzy, stinging insect. Its the Bee Line Expressway or straight shot to the cool Atlantic beaches for the sweaty Orlando folks. [Contrary to allegory when Im having a barbecue, bees in my yard fly more like the Pennsylvania Turnpike - every which way except straight.]
Orlandos OOCEA is somewhat unusual in that it has the power to issue a traffic citation itself, as if it were a cop. But it gives its patrons two violations before it hits them with a citation. 3 violations in 30 days constitutes grounds for citation, according to OOCEA policy, but in practice it is forgiving in tourist areas and in any case with an emergency. The aim is to keep the overall violation rate to 2% of passages.
The original system is difficult to upgrade and uses now-old cameras. OOCEA in practice has relied on combining Vezz with selective use of police cars, and heavily publicized operations targeting flagrant violators. Its champion violator so far has run up 600 blow-bys.
The original system is now being retired in favor of a new Vezz.
We learn most usefully however that an in-house group at the Georgia-400 pike in Atlanta was able to improve 20-fold the productivity of its existing Lockheed vezz. Our great national rocketeer and master fighterplane manufacturer had presented the new Atlanta tollster with a Vezz that stored images in a proprietary format - probably the byproduct of some cost-plus scheme for fleecing the Pentagon with incomprehensible technological complexity that by simply transitioning to an off-the-shelf open-source JPEG file system used only one-twentieth the file size for each pic. The preceding Lockheed Vezz in Atlanta was so awful that only 480 images of violators could be processed in three 8-hour shifts. The Vezz Guide describes the Lockheed software as comprising poorly written image retrieval routines and an overloaded database server.
By simply going to the open JPEG format and rewriting code, a young programmer at the GA-400 was able, they say, to produce near-instantaneous account and image retrieval, and to produce a 2-station system that can handle 10,000 images per 3-shift day.
10,000 vs 480! One programmer just out of college, versus the mighty Lockheed. This stuff is turning the world upside down.
Of course Lockheed now has a new Vezz, part of its Vector program that operates at the Triborough/NYSTA customer service center, in Baltimore and elsewhere.
The other delightfully candid contra-lesson in the case studies comes from Denvers E-470 Vezz experience. MFS/Adesta, is not named explicitly, but it is described in the IBTTA Vezz Guide as having done a good job on the preliminary design of the Vezz. After that it was all downhill. Two years after the project the contractor has not yet accomplished an interface linking the tag data with that of the (state motor registry.) An essential part of any operational Vezz!
A subcontractor did not have a good track record and was abandoned 3/4 way through the process. Two other firms have been employed subsequently, each with separate approaches to the design of a violation processing system. Still no operational interface.
MFS itself suffered a loss of key personnel losing leading programmers and engineers: Thus they couldnt take the design from paper to actual construction and deployment. The contractor is currently standing by but not operating the system.
[Dont believe that a trade association committee cannot compete with an independent newsletter in calling a dog a dog!]
Wed heard that there were various work-arounds being deployed and that the civil-engineering prime contractor and the E-470 toll agency had negotiated a settlement by way of accepting a lesser toll system at a reduced price.
E-470 says that they made a mistake in having the toll system part of a larger design-build contract. They were told by the contractor Dont interfere whenever they expressed an interest in the design of the toll system Vezz. Yet when problems occurred in performance they were told they had provided inadequate direction and specs. DB produced a cant-win situation!
No substitute, they say, for the tried and true method of defining specifications early on with the contractor, then insisting on early agreement on preliminary design with a work schedule and milestones to be met.
The NY State Thruways account notes that it both developed the Vezz and did its system integration using in-house engineers. They have no idea how much this cost because it was done by salaried personnel, plaza by plaza. NY state legislation does not yet allow license plate denial for unpaid tolls so the Big Apple Vezz has a limited objective: to keep honest people honest. The Thruway rep was resigned: Youre not going to defeat the thieves.
The real hard work the Thruway has discovered is maintaining and operating their system. They photograph both front and back of vehicles that violate, because of the good proportion of tractor-trailers. If they had it over, theyd use a different lighting system to the one they have. People complain about the brightness of the lights used to illuminate license plates. And they mounted the lights too high - to avoid snow plows.
The Thruway thinks vehicle classification is far too complex to produce a smoothly working check on vehicle classification with in-lane equipment. And they have a shot at their Boston buddies and charges for transponders when enrolling in ETC. They think this encourages Massachusettians to get E-ZPass tags in NY - $0.00 down vs $27 - rather than subscribing to the home tag.
No word on the experiences of Caltrans in the Bay area? Or the Carquinez bridge as an exemplary ETC/VES test-bed?
Political plate panderers
London was probably saved a good few IRA terrorist bombings because of Britains excellent license plate designs, and their single nationwide system. Brit plates are extremely machine-readable. The British police established a network of automatic license plate recognition points on the approaches to London and other strategic targets that apparently helped thwart many attacks. We mention this because of the striking contrast with north American plates.
Larger lettering, more accentuated embossing and simpler surrounds distinguish British plates, and other European plates from most American plates. Our politicians pander to all kinds of small interest groups by agreeing to various promotional background clutter. In Maryland you can get one urging fellow motorists to Save Chesapeake Bay, and to the north of the Mason-Dixon line they drive around telling you Youve got a friend in Pennsylvania (Bud Shuster?) The Vezz Guide says that some US states have even turned special interest and vanity license plates into a new revenue source, and will custom manufacture a new plate for an order as small as 25 plates. Virginia has 150 different series of plates and a number of other states have over 100 series.
The same alpha-numeric character combinations can be used over in the same state on the various special interest plates. There can be, for example, many BIG FANs plates issued on behalf of different sporting teams in the same state. Then there is the reliance on very small edge lettering, often mixed with a state slogan to identify the state, and the vehicle type. And there is the common practice of car sales companies, sticking on an edge frame on the plate as advertising. The edge-frame often overlaps the state lettering or vehicle class info.
The DC councilplans to use its license plates as vehicles of political protest. They plan the slogan Taxation without Representation on district license plates. No doubt Puerto Ricans will soon be driving cars whose plates declare Yankee Navy Out of Vieques And them Texans...
In short, American license plates are a serious visual mess and becoming messier, and therefore pose an increasing challenge to optical character recognition (OCR) algorithms. Yet Vezz depends almost entirely on reading license plates. The Guide doesnt say what might be done. Maybe thats not the role of a guide.
But it raises a policy issue for tollsters. Maybe the police forces are the natural allies of the toll industry in this matter. Just as the Vezzes get messed up by license plate chaos, so must police vehicle ID be frustrated by the same phenomenon. USDOT doesnt seem to help here at present but maybe the national government could be mobilized in a necessary License Plate Clarity project?
Or maybe a more helpful course will be to jump clear through to true Automatic Vehicle Identification (AVI) in which a RFID tag is somehow embedded for life in the body of the vehicle? A transponder attached only with glue, or a screw, let alone velcro, is not vehicle identification? Or maybe a visual and RFID tag will best be inextricably incorporated into a visually checkable sticker-tag combination on the windshield? The IBM/Intermech/Amtech technology seemed to be heading that way.
At some point VES-administrators may have to move into these kinds of policy issues.
Eye and brain
The Guide uses the term VES for the front end of violations handling and there the V makes sense as standing for Video, not Violation. The Guide places a lot of emphasis on the importance of what it calls a Violations Processing System (VPS) which covers all the activities after the video images are acquired - the back end of violations handling. The VES is the eyeball and the VPS is the brain.
Many violators are in fact regular customers with malfunctioning equipment, or a late account, so most VPS systems attempt to distinguish this first up. The Guide introduces a useful new term pay by plate to describe billing by license plate read, as used routinely on 407-ETR in Toronto. But in the case of patrons with a paid-up account and a transponder that misreads, and triggers a Vezz, the VPS should simply go to a pay-by-plate toll billing
Manuals are in their nature about as compelling a read as telephone directories. This one actually has a bit of stimulating if roughish reading and a lot of useful checklists for anyone getting into the business of handling violations better. It is quite tightly written, despite that execrable title. It is primarily American in orientation, but there is a useful chapter on parallel European efforts. The Europeans incidentally have a new acronym, DIMES for Digital IMaging Enforcement System, which captures the essence of VES better than that term.
The Guides major contribution to new thinking is that emphasis on the importance of the back end of the Vezz. It defines the VES as the front end, the system of sensors that trigger the recording of an image of the violator through to the generation of a license plate number. But an effective system needs a well-designed back end or Violations Processing System (VPS) to take those identified owners of violating vehicles and generate an effective and economical system that harnesses the law and computing power to gain the tollster its rightful revenue and deter future violations. The VES or DIMES is the eye. Maybe the VPS is the brain and the legal brawn?
Rena Barta, director of the E-ZPass IAG was chair of the work group of 16, and Jim Tuton of American Traffic Systems was the writer. They produced a useful and stimulating work overall.
We cant say, unfortunately, that Jim missed his calling: he let that mumble-mouth report title pass, for a start. Naming Floridas Bee Line a B-class pike has already had him blacklisted weve heard on a grapevine from doing business in the state for what is called a gross insult to Floridian roadbuilders and toll agencies. Also he managed to get the name of the trade association wrong. The glossary calls it the International Bridge Turnpike and Tunnel Association. Bridge and tunnel always go together. (Call Tim McGuckin IBTTA for the Vezz Guide: 202 659 4620 www.ibtta.org)