Maine Turnpike Authority's effort to build a new south-end toll plaza raises issue of all-electronic tolling
By Peter Samuel
All-electronic tolling (AET) is being vigorously argued over in Maine as an alternative to an approx-$50 million plaza with open road tolling in the center and cash lanes to the sides (ORT + cash). All three potential sites for ORT + cash including the existing 17-cash-lane toll plaza are in York township, where a citizen group called Think Again and the elected council or Board of Selectmen are united in opposition to any wider toll plaza.
They argue that the Maine Turnpike should commit to a move "within ten years" to all-electronic tolling. Meanwhile toll operations would continue in the existing 17 slow toll lanes.
There is opposition to the two new proposed sites to the north because they take land and each affects four streams and the town water supply.
Redevelopment for ORT + cash at the existing site is difficult because of the nearby interchange, and the horizontal curve.
But on the advice of general engineering consultants HNTB the Turnpike has ruled out all-electronic tolling and is going for US Government environmental permits with the three wide ORT + cash designs.
Michael Estes, chairman of the York board of selectmen says the town is considering going out for consultants of its own, so serious are they about blocking Turnpike plans and about encouraging the Turnpike to go all-electronic.
This is a big fight.
The HNTB advice against all-electronic tolling (AET) as an option is contained in a 22-page Appendix E "All Electronic Tolling Report" which we've extracted from the submission to the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) as a pdf which can be downloaded here:
The report acknowledges many benefits from AET:
- greater safety since separations, stops and merges are eliminated
- motorist convenience and time savings with no stops
- lower capital cost ($6.9m v $31.4m)
- lower maintenance costs ($187k v $525k)
- environmental benefits
Operations costs for ORT+cash it puts at $4.13m/yr and AET at two extremes called optimistic $2.62m, pessimistic $9.19m/yr.
But, as HNTB see it, the real downer is the supposedly unique risk posed to revenues of AET due to uncertainties about collecting video toll bills from non-Maine motorists.
They put present 'leakage' at 1.7% or $560k/yr.
Without explanation they put ORT+cash ('highway speed') leakage at 2.6% or $850k.
For AET they present two wildly different estimates of leakage:
(1) optimistic 4.2% or $1.5m
(2) pessimistic 45.6% or $17.1m
They provide no explanation for the basis of either of these AET leakage estimates, but the pessimistic one appears to assume that no non-Maine drivers pay any toll bills at all.
They conclude: "The reality of the circumstance (sic) is that it is very unlikely that the optimistic or the pessimistic scenario will occur. It is more likely that revenue leakage will be somewhere in the middle. This value however is significant and poses a grave threat to the Maine Turnpike..."
They repeatedly say there is no prospect for making AET work across state borders within the next 20 years. They give no explanation for their 20 year timeframe.
COMMENT: This is the worst piece of toll industry consulting work we've seen in reading consultants reports for 15 years. It is baseless scaremongering, not serious professional advice. The report is replete with factual inaccuracies, serious misrepresentations, and illogicalities, and it is written by people professionally unqualified to make pronouncements in this area.
HNTB is described as a "firm providing architecture, engineering, planning and construction services." They have expertise in civil engineering, environmental permitting and the technical aspects of toll systems and procurement.
HNTB have no expertise...
HNTB have no expertise in the backoffice side of toll collection - in matters of billing, interstate law on collections, or credit risk. In their sweeping pronouncements on these subjects in their Appendix E they don't cite any experience, or any experts in the field.
If the Turnpike were serious about considering the pros and cons of all-electronic tolling they would go beyond engineering consultants and look to experts in the financial and legal issues and consult practitioners. A toll company that has over ten years of experience in doing what HNTB says can't be done - collecting on a high percentage of toll bills from all over Canada and many states in the US - is 407-ETR in Toronto Canada. Others are PlatePass and Highway Toll Administration.
Firms that can give expert advice from experience in billing and collections include ACS, TransCore, ETC, IBM, Faneuil, Citibank, JP Morgan among others. Nossaman and several other firms can give legal advice on interstate legal issues that HNTB engineers are totally unqualified to pronounce on.
By following the financial/legal advice of HNTB, MTA is asking Maine and motorists in Maine to forgo the admitted lower operating cost, lower capital cost, lower environmental impact, lower accident rate and lesser hassle for motorists because of a couple of engineers' uninformed guesses about the worst-case risks of bill collection.
ORT+cash presents collection challenges too.
The collection challenge is similar with ORT+cash and AET, which is ORT (no cash.)
The good citizens will pay their tolls either to a toll collector (ORT+cash) or when billed (AET).
The risks of revenue loss are similar because the open road of ORT+cash is similar to the AET open road. Both invite scofflaws to fly through the middle if there isn't serious enforcement.
The HNTB suggestion that AET alone poses substantial revenue risks is baseless and at odds with experience and commonsense.
HNTB persist in attempting to shore up their case for ORT+cash with patently false claims, with evasions and 'spin':
Patently false claim: "no existing cash based (toll) agency has completed a total conversion to AET" (this in the Phase One report to US Army Corps of Engineers dated November 5, 2009)
Denver Colorado's E-470 Public Highway Authority introduced License Plate (video) Tolls on January 1 2009 as an alternative to cash throughout their system which is comparable in size and revenue to the whole Maine Turnpike system. They discontinued cash collection completely July 4 2009.
Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (Austin TX) made a total conversion to AET December 1, 2008 when all remaining cash booths were closed
Evasions: experience can be gained and lessons learned for AET in Maine not only by total conversions but by new all-electronic toll roads, by individual toll point and individual tollroad conversions, and by the experience with open road tolling plus side-cash collection
North Texas Tollway Authority in Dallas, and Texas DOT toll systems are substantially converted to AET and provide relevant data despite the fact that they are not yet totally converted. Pres Geo Bush Turnpike converted completely in 2009 and the busiest toll plaza (Wycliff Av) on the Dallas North Tollway.
Plenty of toll facilities in North America and abroad have been all-electronic from the beginning. Most motorists do not care about the history of a toll facility. They respond to what they see in front of them whether it is a conversion or all-electronic from the start, so HNTB make a distinction without a difference in their focus on conversions.
407-ETR in Toronto has been all-electronic from its opening in 1997, so has the Westpark Tollway in Houston and toll lanes in Minnesota (I-394), California (State Route 91 and I-15), Miami (I-95), Denver (I-25), Seattle (WA167), Melbourne CityLink in Australia, tollroads in Santiago Chile and Israel (H6). Most Australian tollroads have done conversions to AET or been AET from the beginning. They too have interstate issues and scofflaws to deal with.
Spin: HNTB characterize 407-ETR in Toronto, the world's pioneer of AET as a 4-lane toll road (table column 3, p6 of Appendix E)
Maine of course has a substantial 6-lane section so to describe 407-ETR as a 4-lane highway as HNTB does makes it look small by comparison. In fact most of 407-ETR, 84km of 108km is 6 lanes or more, and of that 49km is either 8 lanes or 10 lanes. (see picture above of 5+5 lane stretch)
Far from being a minor tollroad compared to the Maine Turnpike, as HNTB would have you believe in their spin, 407-ETR as an all-electronic tollroad manages to collect approximately $530m/year in toll revenues v Maine Turnpike $80m.
All-electronic toll facilities are planned that will rely heavily on interstate toll collection - Pennsylvania Turnpike's I-80 toll plans for example are designd to be AET.
There's an active group called Alliance for Toll Interoperability that is working to improve collection across state borders and which would totally reject the HNTB notion that no progress is possible in a 20 year timeframe.
Electronic vehicle registration (EVR) in which annual vehicle registration stickers contain an ISO 18000 6C sticker tag incorporated similar to the TxTag, SunPass mini and other toll transponders, if adopted by motor registries could improve the accuracy of interstate vehicle RFID within two or three years, not 20.
The tags cost less than $2.
Brazil and Mexico are introducing EVR now. US state motor registries can't be that behind other countries in adopting EVR.
CONCLUSION: The Maine Turnpike is working off a preposterously misleading report by civil engineers that makes unsubstantiated and unqualified claims about legal and financial matters.
All-electronic tolling clearly should be one of the options being considered as part of the permitting process on I-95 in south Maine, especially since the plans for a new mega-toll plaza are unacceptable to the local people.
DISCLOSURE: we don't normally get directly involved in disputes like this beyond writing about them. However the Turnpike's spokesman Dan Paradee belittled and libelled us in comments to the local media after we pointed out egregious errors in the HNTB report in an earlier report.
Paradee wouldn't comment on the substance of the criticism we made. Now in unprofessional fashion he refuses to answer emails or take our calls.
A little payback is deserved.
We're working directly to help the Think Again group and the York Board of Selectmen with "Talking Points" and other advice in emails and telephone calls because we think their stance is correct and reasonable.
Nevertheless... we suggest a possible compromise that could reduce tensions between the Turnpike and south Mainers, and help motorists.
3 year trial AET - a compromise proposal
The Turnpike would commit to a good-faith, best-effort trial of all-electronic tolling at York toll plaza over a three year period. It would build AET lanes with their necessary software, gantries and electronic toll equipment and cameras through the middle of the present York Toll Plaza, demolishing, for now, only as many of the existing cash toll lanes and toll booths as necessary to accommodate the ORT/AET segment of highway down the middle.
During the AET trial period the remaining ten toll lanes and booths would be taken out of service and weatherproofed. Approach and departure pavement would be undisturbed.
At the end of the 3-year trial of AET Maine Turnpike Authority would review its experience with cashless highway speed tolling at the York site.
If HNTB-style fears of revenue leakage were being realized it would have on hand about five existing cash toll lanes on either side of the ORT/AET segment that could be immediately returned to toll collection service at minimum cost.
It could then resume its search for an acceptable permanent site for an ORT+cash plaza of HNTB design to which it could relocate the ORT equipment.
If however, as most believe, Maine proved capable of managing the enforcement and collection challenges of AET, the Turnpike could move to demolition of the remaining ten cash toll booths and toll lanes and removal of the approach and departure plaza pavements. Then the surplus land could be returned to wetlands and native vegetation.
The trial-AET would defuse present tensions. It should present minimal permitting difficulties and would have public support. It would retain a fallback cash option and be modest in cost.
The Turnpike Authority could move quickly to provide motorists and residents with tangible benefits.
An RFP for financial guarantees by a back office operator could shift much of the revenue risk of the trial from the public toll authority to the private sector operator for the period of the trial.