For Pa. Turnpike Commission, E-Z does it

    Toll booth collectors along the Pennsylvania Turnpike may soon go the way of the milkman.

    The Turnpike Commission wants to eliminate all of its tollbooths, and switch to a system utilizing only electronic E-ZPass readers and video cameras — what’s known as “all electronic tolling” or AET.

    In the proposed system, all turnpike interchanges would be torn down, allowing for the free-flow of traffic at highway speeds. E-ZPass users would be automatically recognized by sensors hanging from overhead girders, and be charged without even having to tap their brakes.

    “Just with how the technology has evolved, this is where this industry is headed,” said Carl DeFebo, a spokesman for the commission. “It tends to be a much more efficient and cost effective method of collecting tolls because you’re removing barriers.”

    Officials estimate that the transition would cost $320 million to complete, but would — over the long run — save money by eliminating the operation and maintenance of its more than 70 toll plaza interchanges.

    In addition to saving state funds, DeFebo says, AET will add convenience to commuting, eliminate toll plaza-related accidents, and reduce the environmental impact of idling vehicles.

    The proposal — which would be the first cross-state effort of its kind — is still in its research phase, and wouldn’t be implemented until 2017 at the earliest.

    Many other U.S. toll roads, including the Intercounty Connector in Maryland, already have similar systems in place.

    In order for Pennsylvania’s to be implemented successfully, the commission must first work with neighboring states to ensure the proposed AET system properly considers out-of-state drivers.

    E-ZPass or else

    If there were ever a time to get an E-ZPass, this is it.

    Of those who use the turnpike in Southeastern Pennsylvania, it’s estimated that about 25 percent don’t yet employ the technology. Statewide, that percentage rises to about 32 percent.

    If the AET moves forward, these drivers would be monitored for toll-road use by having their license plates videotaped as they cross toll-boundaries. Later, the commission would collect payment by invoicing them through the mail.

    Because the process of reviewing tape and mailing payments would put an additional burden on the commission, the cost will be passed on to the non-E-ZPass customer.

    According to the official report, non-E-ZPass users could pay an additional toll surcharge of up to 76 percent. Simply put, a $10 toll collected electronically would turn to a more than $17 one by mail.

    But here, DeFebo says, the numbers can be slightly misleading. He says that non-E-ZPass users already pay a 17 percent toll surcharge, so that the AET-related increase should more accurately be seen as 50 percent.

    Yet, according to DeFebo, even this number shouldn’t be taken to heart. He claims that the commission will lower that percentage differential by the time the AET plan is potentially put in place.

    Vanishing careers

    While the exact cost incurred by E-ZPass-reluctant drivers is yet to be determined, the price paid by the state’s 730 toll collectors seems sure: their jobs.

    Here DeFebo stressed the commission’s potential role in “easing the transition” for its workers. Ultimately, though, he says the pending change is both necessary and unavoidable

    “As a public entity we have a responsibility to ensure that we are operating as efficiently and as effectively as we possibly can be,” said DeFebo.

    The union representing the turnpike’s toll collectors — Local 77, based in Fort Washington — could not be reached for comment.

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