Question for Maine Turnpike Authority on southern toll plaza proposal & answer from MTA (ADDED)

January 31, 2010
By Peter Samuel

We posed the following question Jan 23 to Dan Paradee, spokesman for the Maine Turnpike Authority on the controversy over the form that their southern toll plaza should take - (1) cash and roll-through electronic as now (2) open road tolling (ORT) through the middle and cash on the sides, the HNTB recommendation (3) all-electronic.

 Dan: In all the argument over the best type of Southern toll plaza for the Maine Turnpike it seems to me you have not adequately addressed this:

You propose to go to open road tolling (ORT) down the middle. This will be a major departure from present practice. In order to prevent serious revenue leakage from scofflaws flying through the new central ORT lanes you will need a robust back office system for going after these toll runners, identifying them, locating them, imposing penalties , collecting from a good proportion of them, and deterring gross toll evasion.

If you are capable of developing such a strong back office to prevent significant revenue leakage in these ORT lanes why can't you scale it up to all-electronic tolling (AET)?

This involves expanding the capacity of the camera, license plate recognition and look-up systems and dealing by mail with the honest folks who would otherwise pull over to the right and pay cash.   These people are the ones you have least to fear from.

By going to ORT you are saying you can take on the most difficult interstate collection challenge of all-electronic tolling, namely dealing with the scofflaws including many from interstate. If you are up to that why cannot you also deal with the honest folks who would otherwise pull over and pay cash?

If you lack confidence in your ability to develop back office systems to deal with interstate scofflaws - as you seem to say - then why are you moving to open road tolling down the middle of the new toll plaza? You should be modernizing your toll collection as-is - in other words you should be sticking with stop-to-pay and transponder roll-through in a  lane-constrained format.

ORT+cash as you propose seems to get the worst of both - high costs and risks of leakage from scofflaws. Plus all that opposition from local people.

Peter Samuel, editor TOLLROADSnews

Response

Response from Dan Paradee Maine Turnpike Authority received Feb 1:

"There are a host of reasons behind this decision, but I have tried to contain my response to the specific issue you raised in your e-mail.
 
"First, I think you would agree that no two toll facilities are exactly alike, that each facility serves a unique traffic mix, and that each agency has a responsibility to consider the characteristics of its traffic mix when contemplating changes to its toll collection system.   The Maine Turnpike Authority has given considerable thought to these issues and has determined that an ORT system with the option of cash toll collection is the most prudent and suitable for our traffic mix.
 
"The Maine Turnpike Authority has always acknowledged that cashless tolling can be effective on highways that are dominated by commuters and other frequent users, and thus have extremely high E-ZPass user rates.  The high E-ZPass user rate means that the agency only has to rely on video tolling to collect a small portion of its revenue.  We are also convinced that cashless systems work best on highways that serve populations that reside within a common jurisdiction, making it possible to obtain accurate, up-to-date, addresses for billing purposes and to pursue effective enforcement for nonpayment.
 
"These are not the characteristics of the Maine Turnpike.  We are not a commuter highway.  Our customers are primarily occasional users and tourists.  In fact, more than 50% of our revenue comes from out-of-state and Canada.  Our E-ZPass user rate is currently 58%, and based on our unique traffic mix, we do not expect to reach a rate considered necessary for prudent cashless tolling in the foreseeable future, if ever.
 
"The decision to favor ORT over AET simply came down to an assessment of risks.  In our judgment, the risk of revenue leakage would be substantially greater under an AET system that eliminates the option to pay cash than under an ORT system that maintains a cash payment option.  The primary risk is not related to the technology, but rather to the absence of a reliable interstate or international enforcement system.
 
"Under an ORT system the vast majority of non-E-ZPass customers will pay the cash toll.  That means we would only rely on the process of video tolling to retrieve tolls from the small percentage of motorists who either purposely evade the toll or simply end up in the ORT lanes by mistake.   Our experience tells us that that these violations will amount to about 2-4% of traffic. By confining the risk of non-payment to this small group, the MTA not only limits the potential loss of revenue, but ensures that our enforcement efforts will be more manageable, focused and thus effective.
 
"Under AET, however, we would be relying on the video tolling to collect a significantly larger portion of our revenue.  Again, based on our unique traffic mix and the predominance of occasional and out-of state users, we would expect to be reliant on video tolling to collect 30-40% of our revenue for at least the next 20 years. The difference in risk between collecting 2-4% through video tolling and collecting 30-40% through video tolling is vast, especially when one considers that 50% of MTA revenue comes from out-of-state and the effectiveness of collecting and enforcing the payment of video tolls across state lines is, at best, uncertain.
 
"Even the most avid fan of AET must acknowledge that a direct cash toll payment at the time of travel is a much more reliable form of revenue collection than one that relies on the multi-step process of  (1) video-imaging license plates, (2) obtaining accurate interstate and Canadian data bases to match plate numbers to mailing addresses  (3) processing and mailing millions of bills each year and, (4) trusting that out-of-state and out-of-country residents will feel compelled to send in a check for  tolls, plus substantial processing fees, for a trip taken weeks prior, knowing full well that there is no effective way to enforce their compliance.   And this does not even consider the reaction of Maine residents who will also receive bills that include processing fees that are likely to far exceed the cost of the toll itself.
 
"In the end the MTA has concluded that the financial risk of relying on video tolling to collect from 2-4% of revenue from ORT violators is significantly less than the risk of relying on video tolling to collect 30-40% of revenue as would be necessary with AET.  The high percentages of out-of-state and infrequent users on the Maine Turnpike are the key factors driving that risk.
 
"The Maine Turnpike Authority Board of Directors is responsible for maintaining the MTA's outstanding financial position, which is centered on the ability to effectively and fairly collect tolls.  They are simply not willing adopt a strategy that jeopardizes our ability to collect revenue from out-of-state visitors and thus threatens to place a heavier burden on Maine toll payers.
 
"I hope this helps you understand the MTA's position on this issue.  More detailed information confirming the Maine Turnpike Authority's decision to adopt ORT over AET can be viewed in Appendix E of the Maine Turnpike Southern Toll Plaza, Draft -Phase One Report, at www.maineturnpike.com."

ends response

TOLLROADSnews 2010-02-01


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