Penn Pike tweaking new open road toll signage at Mid County Plaza

November 28, 2005
Closer-in satellite imaging from TerraServer shows Mid County Plaza on the NE Extension at bottom with mainline and trumpet interchange plus Norristown plaza just to the north.
Closer-in satellite imaging from TerraServer shows Mid County Plaza on the NE Extension at bottom with mainline and trumpet interchange plus Norristown plaza just to the north.
Diagrammatic map shows Mid County Toll Plaza #20 at intersection of Mainline and NE Ext.
Diagrammatic map shows Mid County Toll Plaza #20 at intersection of Mainline and NE Ext.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike are tweaking the signage on the northbound approaches to the new open road toll (ORT) lanes at their Mid County Toll Plaza north of Philadelphia. There have been complaints of confusion by motorists, last minute swerves in or out of the ORT or manual lanes, and a few motorists finding themselves in the wrong lane and backing up. There have been no serious injury accidents so far but a few denting collisions.

TV coverage

The NBC affiliate Channel 10 in Philadelphia ran an item on the problems Nov 16. They have a team they call "The Investigators." The soundtrack of their report said in part:

"In a short period of time, in Friday's rush hour, the Investigators watched drivers come to a complete stop, drive in reverse into 55 mph traffic and swerve out of E-ZPass lanes into oncoming traffic, when they realized they were in the wrong lane. One driver drove head-on into a barricade last week, trying to avoid the E-ZPass lanes. One toll taker said that there is at least an accident a day at the interchange."

Busiest toll plaza

The Mid County Toll Plaza in Plymouth Meeting PA is the busiest plaza on the Turnpike system with about 65k toll transactions per day. It is a tough place to do open road tolling.

Oct 12 this year the Turnpike opened 2x2 open road electronic toll lanes or Express E-ZPass as they are branded. The four ORT lanes are lanes 5 through 8. Northbound there are 9 manual lanes (Lanes 9 thru 17) for motorists to pick up tickets for travel up north on the Extension or east on the Mainline. Southbound there are 4 staffed toll lanes (Lanes 1 thru 4) to take tickets and tolls.

The toll plaza is on I-476 just north of the transition between the Pennsylvania DOT "Blue Route" expressway and the North East Extension of the Turnpike.

The Blue Route is the peripheral north-south highway through the western suburbs of Philadelphia and just 5km (3mi) short of the Mid County interchange it crosses the radial I-76 Schuykill Expressway (rendered skoykil) coming out of downtown Philadelphia. Therefore its heaviest movement is the evening peak period. On the approach to the toll plaza the highway of 2x3 lanes snakes left and right, and there is a strong right turn into the toll plaza. The belly-out of the plaza is located shortly after a busy off-ramp to a local arterial, Germantown Pike.

The Mid County plaza (#20) is located almost parallel with the I-276 east-west mainline of the Turnpike, which has a trumpet interchange and a separate Norristown toll plaza (#333, previously #25 in the old notation). Traffic moving between the North East Extension and the Mainline (I-276) avoids both toll plazas but the Mid County plaza issues tickets for traffic out of Philadelphia going north up the NE Extension or going east on the Mainline toward New Jersey.

As a result of the local connections and the two turnpikes crossing there is a complex spaghetti of ramps to be signed, and difficult decisions about how many signs are enough.

Negative report not all negative

The Channel 10 TV report encouraged viewers to contact and gave Bill Capone's email. He says got about 80 email complaints. He summarizes the complaints as saying that the signage northbound is confusing on the approach and that the merge on the exit from the plaza is abrupt.

Capone says the Turnpike hopes to improve the signage but most of those on the northbound approach are PennDOT signs located on PennDOT territory. PennDOT and the Turnpike are working on the problem together, he says.

One complaint was that a sign 2 miles (3km) back says "Pennsylvania Turnpike 2 Left Lanes". That sign encourages motorists to align themselves with the two ORT lanes when they arrive at the toll plaza, causing those without a transponder to have to belatedly swing right. PennDOT has already taken that sign down.

At the 1,000 foot mark there are good signs but they don't give motorists much time to change lanes because they only have a short distance to the bullnose of the jersey barrier separating cash from ORT lanes.

The Turnpike and PennDOT have also been moving signs a bit laterally on the gantries to make them read better on the curve in to the toll plaza.

Southbound there don't seem to be any problems because the approach is straighter in to the plaza.

There doesn't seem much they can do about the abrupt merge the other end because about 800m (2600ft) beyond the canopy line is the right hand exit to the Mainline east. Transponder users have to get across.

Posted speed 35mph in troublesome northbound

Posted speeds southbound in the ORT lanes are 55mph (89km/hr) but the troublesome northbound lanes are posted 35mph (56km/hr) in recognition of the more difficult approach.

Capone says that although the TV news report cast the Turnpike "in a negative way" - a polite way of saying the story was the Turnpike messed up - a benefit has been that it did get out the story that motorists need to take the Mid County toll plaza slowly and be especially alert.

"It's a challenge," Capone says.

He says the TV report also gave the Turnpike the opportunity to tell people again: "Please don't stop, or backup if you find yourself without a ticket because you went through the E-ZPass lanes. You can work it out with the toll collector at the end of your journey."

He says if the toll collector doesn't solve the problem by accepting their account of having entered at the Mid County plaza and assesses them the maximum distance toll then there's a second backup process for motorists to ask for refunds.

The Mid County toll plaza is the second one on the Pennsylvania Turnpike with open road tolling. The first was at Warrendale on the western end of the ticket system north of Pittsburgh. There have been few problems there. Volumes are lower. It's a straight shot. And there are no adjacent ramps and exit signs to distract drivers.

Here we got one email only on the Mid County Interchange subject and it said the new high speed lanes are "terrific." The guy loved 'em.

OPINION: If they can make ORT work at this interchange northbound then it can be done anywhere. This has everything going against ORT - signage overload because of multiple off-ramps, three travel lanes total, and a sharp approach curve. If the signage changes don't do the trick they may need to add a fourth lane on the approach so there is more time to split the ORT and cash traffic into 2 lanes each further back.

Of course in five years or so there may be no cash collection at all. Cash is declining rapidly as a medium of exchange across the whole economy. Gas stations, supermarkets and now fast food places now take payment by card. TOLLROADSnews 2005-11-28

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