New York City's central area toll scheme too rushed, too complex - bidders, City may be listening

January 2, 2008

Firms bidding to build and operate New York City's central area congestion toll are virtually unanimous that the project faces catastrophe if the City attempts to proceed as planned. They say the scheme put out for comment by the City is unnecessarily complicated and expensive, and that the schedule is so rushed it may be impossible to meet. City officials have said they may have to adjust their plans. Bruce Schaller, deputy commissioner at NYCDOT said at the IBTTA finance meeting in Washington DC Dec 4 that they are looking at a number of modifications (see slide nearby).

The bidders views are expressed bluntly in private comments, but many of them are reflected in more nuanced fashion in their responses to the request for expressions of interest (RFEI).

One of the most eligible bidders, IBM, was quite clear in public comments: "The overall complexity of the project makes the proposed schedule very demanding."

They said "an overoptimistic schedule would increase project risks" and that a "phased approach of first implementing pricing along the cordon followed by implementing pricing for internal trips is an appealing strategy."

MajescoMastek, active in London pricing write: "The number of potential entry points into the Manhattan charging zone, particularly with the free Boundary route, and the ambition to charge drivers within the zone creates a real issue in respect of the use of 'tag and beacon' (transponder and reader) technologies which are the basis for the current E-ZPass technology.

The infrastructure needed will have significant cost and streetscape implications, and suppliers may not be capable of providing and installing such a large order within the available timescale....Achieving the March 2009 deadline really is a case of 'keep it simple' or if not simple at least 'proven'!"

IBM clear - do 40 cordon toll points first, then follow with internal

IBM propose getting the cordon charges located on the north at 86th St and to west and east on the Hudson and East Rivers into operation first, then moving onto the difficult task of tolling internal movements within the congestion charge zone - below 86th Street on Manhattan.

A formal request for proposals by the City is not expected until March 31 2008, the deadline in state law for go/no-go votes by the state legislature and the city. It seems unlikely therefore there will be a selection before May and a start on work before June 2008, bidders say.

Here's the crunch: the city wants the system complete and operating in nine months - by the end of March 2009.

The project as described by the City involves about 340 toll points covering between 2 and 6 lanes each - 1200 to 1500 toll lanes total. This is normally the kind of job that takes three or four years.

Of the 340 toll points mentioned by the city as their planning assumption:

- 40 are needed to form the basic $8/day for cars cordon including the avenues crossing 86th St on either side of Central Park and the entry/exit points on the portals to bridges and tunnels on the Hudson and East Rivers

- 80 are needed to handle the ingress and egress points along the peripheral eastside FDR Drive, and West Side Highway and West Street which the city has decided need to be free

- 220 to provide for the $4/day internal toll on cars by covering north-south internal movement at about 4 streets and east-west movement at about two avenues

The Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEA) asked bidders for their ideas on improving the City's proposal. They certainly responded.

Using a time to clear the zone - Lidingo method

One simplification virtually all the bidders agree on - eliminating the 80 toll points along the free riverside highways.

The problem is that contrary to the diagrammatic maps produced by the City the entrances to the bridges and tunnels are not near the peripheral roads. Because of grade issues in transitioning to Manhattan ground levels from high bridges and deep tunnels they are many city blocks away from the riverside peripheral highways and traffic between the two has to travel city surface streets.

Instead of trying to fence in the peripheral highways' on and off ramps they would just record vehicles passing a single barrier toll point and apply what IBM calls the Lidingo Rule. This is named after the manner in which vehicles of residents of the Stockholm island community of Lidingo, only accessible through the central congestion toll zone are recorded on entrance to the toll zone, given a specified time to get through it, and if recorded as leaving within that time, they are charged no toll. The allowed time can be adjusted for changes in traffic conditions.

Internal tolling the biggest challenge

But it is the 220 internal toll points that the bidders have the biggest problem with.

The bidders fear work on the toll points will be mired in esthetic arguments with the New York City Arts Commission which has to approve equipment mounting designs in city streets.

Their responses devote considerable space to different solutions designed to minimize the visual impact of equipment.

915MHz antennas for E-ZPass have to be positioned directly above each travel lane, so gantries are needed for avenues and many streets. Scanners needed for vehicle classification are a bit more forgiving and license plate cameras for video tolling also. They can more often go on poles, though sometimes with quite long and prominent mast arms (outriggers the British firms say). All equipment needs to have a line of sight close to vertical or high vehicles will obscure the pictures and interfere with scans.

Siemens say no internal E-ZPass, just cameras

Siemens in their comments argue that the City should use license plate cameras exclusively for the internal tolling using existing poles and mast arms as well as buildings where they are close to the street, plus mobile enforcement. They doubt the likelihood of getting Arts Commission approval for the solid gantries needed for E-ZPass antenna.

Under their proposal E-ZPass transponders would only be read on the cordon to support the $8/day entering toll.

Remington ELSAG license plate reading specialists for NYC police argue for heavy use of mobile cameras for the internal tolling with relatively few fixed locations.

They write: "Mobile LPR counteracts the type of toll and route avoidance that New York drivers are famous for. A network of vehicle mounted LPR units can sweep the City quickly and effectively. By actively moving through traffic, they can collect far more information than a stationary location, which obviously has to wait for the vehicle to pass. Since the LPR units are always in motion, the public is less likely to attempt to avoid the readers by taking routes that avoid them, which would likely create more traffic in camera-free zones. Rather than attempt to counter this with a blanket of camera coverage, an integrated, vehicle mounted LPR sub-system could cost-effectively cover the same space."

Next generation could be quite different but first shot has to be E-ZPass+cameras

A number of the bidders comment on how the existing E-ZPass system is not really well suited to congestion charging but most of them also accept that it has to be catered to since there is such a strong established base of millions of E-ZPass transponders and accounts in the New York area.

Also within the time frame envisaged there is a premium on E-ZPass as proven technology.

PBS&J favor regular open road toll installation of gantries with E-ZPass readers and cameras at the 40 cordon toll points but they suggest a mix of strategically located fixed cameras and vehicle mounted or mobile cameras for internal tolling.

They say that GPS can be adapted for the urban environment with pseudolites, a ridiculous term for a quite practical way of overcoming satellite signal obscuration or bounce ('multipath') with locational signals transmitted from buildings or poles.

So far satellite based tolling has only been used in rural areas, for example on the German autobahns, for truck tolling, largely outside cities - Siemens' Toll Collect on board units for trucks.

PBS&J's response also mentions the value of 'multi-hop' communications - vehicle-to-vehicle DSRC or radio communications in which messages from one vehicle can be automatically passed down a road from one vehicle to another before being picked up by a roadside unit. This greatly reduces the need for roadside equipement and gantries.

Multi-hop is a feature of the 5.9GHz national standard next generation DSRC being pushed by the Feds and the OmniAir consortium.

PBS&J say that a multipath mitigated GPS plus multihop approach could reduce the costs of open road tolling from $2m to $4m/lane mile at present to "around $300,000 per lane mile." But PBS&J see this as strictly a next generation system that New York City should think about for later.

PBS&J mengtion sticker tags as an option for NYC. They say they will cost as little as $4 each (about half the price we've heard TransCore has sold them so far, but maybe that's a projection of an offer of E-ZPass scale numbers).

TransCore suggest multimode reader to allow sticker tags in NYC

TransCore pitch their multiprotocol reader Encompass 6 which can read the City's many E-ZPass transponders and another choice of transponder simultaneously - they'd like to sell the city their eGo sticker tags as used heavily in Texas.


Several companies dedicated to new technologies are making their pitches.

Skymeter of Toronto has had impressive results in what they call receiver autonomous multipath mitigation from a prototype GPS+ device. This avoids the need for pseudolite signals using a set of proprietary sensors - probably an accelerometer and mobile telephone signal surveying - to supplement and correct GPS data.

They say they can build a Mark IV RF chip into their unit. They say it will generate and store on board a continuous record of accurate time, distance and place (TDP) data that removes the need for the heavy infrastructure costs of 340 toll points and solves most of the problems of congestion charging. They are also marketing it for parking charges, car insurance and wide area road pricing.

You have to take Skymeter seriously since Martin Capper president of the toll division of Mark IV has joined their advisory board. He says he's only doing that in a private capacity, wanting to help a promising local startup, but he obviously thinks the technology has real potential. He says his guess is its first use is likely to be for parking charges and car insurance fine tuning, rather than tolling.

Two other new technologies are pitching too.

FlexToll developed in Linkoping Sweden - where Kapsch's former Combitech buy-up is located - makes use of mobile telephone (cell) networks supplemented by occasional dedicated GSM transmitters to track a vehicle's time, place and distance which could be uploaded for tolling.

PA Consulting, another Brit based consultant group involved in congestion charging trials say in their submission that integration of the back office system of NYC pricing with the IAG will be a major challenge in the time available and that initially proven E-ZPass Mark IV and license plate cameras are the obvious technology choice.

They too warn against being "overly ambitious" in the first phase designed explicitly for a limited period. They say the initial deployment has to produce demonstrable benefits to the public.

PA Consulting is developing a system they call Kerouac using on on board unit that provides time, distance, place (TDP) data together with back office systems and user interfaces. It can be used with a variety of devices including GSM mobile (cell) phones and a GPS receiver which will hook up via Bluetooth. Like the other TDP on board systems it offers great flexibility to the toller and requires miniscule roadside infrastructure compared to DSRC.

For now they argue for a barebones DSRC E-ZPass plus cameras and major focus on achieving customer benefits in what is spelled out candidly to the public as just a first shot at congestion charging, which will be superseded by a more advanced system if the legislature votes for a continuation after the three year trial period.

The 5.9 Gig?

5.9GHz Omniair and VII (the feds' Vehicle Infrastructure Integration) get a lot of mention. Booz Allen suggest there should be a "gradual migration" from 915Mhz E-ZPass and cameras to either GPS or 5.9GHz, both using cameras to video toll unequipped vehicles. They say the "current expectation" is that 5.9GHz will begin to rollout within five years. (They don't say that even if this does occur, and it depends on the car manufacturers, it will be another ten years after that before most of the US fleet is equipped.)

Back office

Most bidders agree that the congestion charging scheme needs its own separate back office under the direct control of the City (and of course operated by them under a big fat contract). They virtually all argue that existing customer service centers cannot be expected to take on the quite different requirements and heavy load of the central area tolls.

IAG will have to bend rules for NYC

A number of the bidders mention difficulties in integrating the NYC central toll with other E-ZPass agencies at the back office level. This arises from major differences such as:

- the 48-hours-to-pay provision in the city whereas all other IAG E-ZPass tolls are prepaid

- the different vehicle classification system

- the need to match trips to provide discounts for tolls the crossings into Manhattan

- the day pass nature of the central area toll as compared to the normal trip basing of tolls

- video tolling on a much larger scale than done to date

- a slew of exempt categories of vehicle and discounts

The bidders are not suggesting any of these are insuperable problems, just that many of them will require work not only by the City's own DBOM contractor but acceptance by the Inter Agency Group (IAG) and modification of the routines and rules of other E-ZPass agencies.

Rules and practices will have to be adapted throughout the E-ZPass empire. All this could be happening while the IAG is looking at proposals for next-generation equipment to transition away from the existing 915MHz system.

Consulting Stream another British company thinks US license plates are a major challenge to read at high accuracy, not only because of the multiple numbering series, small characters, and clutter but because many vehicles only have rear number plates.

Since the tractor trailer owner is traced by ownership of the tractor there will need to be frontal as well as rear license plate reads. They do say that cameras have greatly improved in the past few years along with techniques - 'syntax' - for correctly distinguishing odd numbers.

They think big gantries are "inappropriate" in the New York City setting. But they mention health problems with mounting DSRC on buildings where people sleep or are static for long periods such as in an office. 915MHz needs to be at least 4m to 7m (13ft to 23ft) depending on power levels from static persons or they will gently cook.

NOTE: This report is based on a review of RFEI responses that were published to a city website a few weeks back. They seem to have since disappeared from there now. Some responders wanted their responses kept secret. We're told for example there is a strong response from a Parsons Brinckerhoff and DMJM Harris/AECOM team. Raytheon, ETC/Autostrade, Cofiroute, ACS, and Kapsch probably have a responses in there in the confidential file.

We haven't mentioned all the responses. Our favorite was the company that suggested a ultra high definition video camera mounted on a single unmanned aerial vehicle (misspelled) circling over the City that could do the whole congestion charging job for pennies.

To download IBM's response

TOLLROADSnews 2008-01-02

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