Maine Turnpike ORT+cash plan for south end gets editorial support - kind of...

June 17, 2010

Maine Turnpike Authority's proposal for an open road toll (ORT) plus cash toll plaza gets editorial support this morning from the Portland Press-Herald, the major newspaper of the state.  The editorial writer picks up on the great reception ORT+cash got in the introductory test over the Memorial Day weekend at the Hampton toll plaza in New Hampshire. It's just 20 minutes south of the contentious toll plaza sites near York Maine.

Under a headline "Our View: New Hampshire debuts a toll system that works" they say:

"Our neighbors give us a glimpse of the future while Mainers still wait at manned booths
Memorial Day Weekend travelers got to see something new this year - a toll (plaza) in New Hampshire with no traffic backed up on either side. (E-ZPass) customers were able to cruise through the toll barrier at near highway speed, paying their tolls  without even rolling down their windows." (parentheses for corrected terms)

The editorial continues:

"Issues raised by neighbors have delayed the process of modernizing the current York toll booth. Proposals for four options that include doing nothing, making changes to the existing facility or building in two other locations are now before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Turnpike opponents have argued in favor of the do-nothing option, claiming that Maine should just wait until an emerging all-electronic tolling system could be deployed.

"Under that system, an E-ZPass account is charged when a car drives through the toll area. Cameras would record license plates, and people without accounts would be billed and fined.

"Mainers interested in the tolling options should take a look at what has been done - and not done - in New Hampshire. The open-road tolling system is very similar to what has been proposed for the Maine Turnpike. Two lanes in each direction are reserved for E-ZPass customers to pass through at normal speed. Cash customers would exit and pay tolls at traditional booths. The new tolls can accommodate 2,200 cars an hour, as opposed to 400 cars per hour in a manned toll booth.

"New Hampshire did not opt for all-electronic tolling for the same reason that Maine officials say it wouldn't work here. About half of the users of  both highways are from other states, and even if they could be sent a bill, the state cannot make them pay.

"That would mean the drivers with accounts would subsidize the ones without them, creating an incentive for scofflaws."

This puts the Maine Turnpike Authority's case better than it has been able to itself. They could have added that in addition to New Hampshire Delaware is also going for a similar ORT+cash on their stretch of I-95 between Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Misleading comparison (COMMENT)

But the comparison is superficial and misleading.

New Hampshire and Delaware are making use of their existing I-95 toll plazas including the majority of their existing cash lanes and putting open road tolling through the middle. Maine Turnpike Authority has got into trouble because they say that can't be done at the existing site. And they are probably correct about that. (see MTA/HNTB slides nearby)

The existing plaza site in York Maine is on a curve which makes cash+ORT maneuvers more problematic. On a curve it can be difficult to pick the correct lane and stick to it. And at the end of the toll plaza the merging of stop-to-pay traffic and open road traffic is less safe on a curve.

Cash toll plazas shouldn't be down in a valley like York either, because gravity works against braking and acceleration.

At York toll plaza the Turnpike doesn't have much of value to make use of - the toll booths, their protective ramparts, the utilities and the staff tunnel, all are terribly deteriorated. There's nothing much salvageable.

Building a new Cash+ORT toll plaza from scratch is very expensive. They're talking at least $50m for the York replacement and over 80% of that cost is the cash collection part.

New Hampshire and Delaware have much larger volumes of traffic to handle but by rebuilding at the same site and making use of existing cash lanes they spend much less money.

And - here is another key difference - by avoiding the search for a new toll plaza site they have minimized impacts. Working within the footprint of their existing toll plazas they aren't upsetting anyone.

New Hampshire and Delaware's addition of ORT to their toll plazas has aroused hardly a whisper of criticism, whereas Maine Turnpike's search for a new toll plaza site has been hugely controversial, and aroused powerful opposition. It has also spawned consultant and expert studies pointing to the advantage of all-electronic tolling - studies the editorial writer seems unfamiliar with.

Delaware three or four years ago proposed a total rebuild of their toll plaza. A completely new site wasn't contemplated but additional land was needed alongside the existing site to cater for a complete rebuild. The estimated cost was around $125m. They abandoned that plan and by keeping most of the existing cash lanes they have kept the cost of adding ORT to a fraction of that.

Out of state toll collection is a challenge with ORT or AET

It is not true as the editorial says that New Hampshire and Delaware are rejecting all-electronic tolling because they couldn't get tolls from out-of-state drivers. They know they've got to find ways of getting tolls from out-of-state drivers because the open road tolling lanes can and will be used by out-of-state drivers without E-ZPass transponders. Open road and all-electronic tolling is becoming so common the different toll authorities and states are having to reach cooperative arrangements to support one another's toll collection.

Maine Turnpike Authority is very active in the Alliance for Toll Interoperability - the group working for such cooperation - precisely because open road tolling requires it.

Scofflaws are not going to be made into law-abiding stop-&-pay customers solely by the presence of cash toll lanes off to the right - which is what the editorial suggests.

If the scofflaws think they can get away without paying a toll bill or a violation notice that comes in the mail from out of state they'll use those central highway speed ORT lanes anyway - whether or not there is cash collection off to the right side.

New Hampshire and Delaware are keeping cash toll collection for the moment because they have modern cash booths and other traditional toll plaza infrastructure with useful life left in them, and because they can insert ORT into their existing toll plaza sites.

They just didn't have to face a decision on rebuilding the cash facilities, or abandoning them to go to all-electronic.

Maine Turnpike doesn't have that luxury.

Here's the editorial we're commenting on:

TOLLROADSnews 2010-06-16

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