REGIONAL SPOTLIGHT: All-electronic tolling ?is still down the road

Posted: March 21, 2012

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission released a report last week on the feasibility of an all-electronic tolling system. I'd like to elaborate on what this change would and would not mean.

A preliminary analysis projected that turnpike tolls for drivers who don't use E-ZPass may have to be set as much as 50 percent higher than the prevailing cash rates if the conversion to an all-electronic system proceeds. It must be emphasized, however, that this is only an early estimate, and that it will take at least five years to convert to all-electronic tolling.

As a report in The Inquirer last week noted, drivers who don't use E-ZPass, who would be billed by mail under an all-electronic system, could pay 76 percent more than other drivers. However, cash customers already pay about 17 percent more than E-ZPass customers, a difference that will remain whether or not a cashless system is implemented. So, while it is true that the difference between E-ZPass and non-E-ZPass tolls could rise as high as 76 percent, the actual increase for cash-paying customers would be about 50 percent. And, of course, travelers can avoid that increase by signing up for E-ZPass before the system is in place.

It's also important to note that the 50 percent increase would cover the higher cost of collecting tolls using technology commonly known as video tolling or license-plate tolling. It involves capturing a digital image of a vehicle's license plate and mailing an invoice to the registered owner. The cost was estimated based on the experiences of other U.S. toll roads that have converted to cashless collection.

As we move toward all-electronic tolling, we plan to take whatever steps we can to minimize the likelihood that we will lose any toll revenue. We plan to reduce the risk of uncollectible tolls by:

Working with the General Assembly on new legislation to ensure that turnpike users make timely toll payments.

Cooperating with neighboring states to craft reciprocity agreements ensuring that out-of-state motorists are required to pay tolls.

Consulting with turnpike users to develop new payment options that would mean less risk for the Turnpike Commission and lower rates for customers.

Engaging in a broad outreach and marketing campaign to educate customers about the cost and convenience benefits of E-ZPass to boost enrollment in the program.

We took a relatively conservative approach to estimating the potential revenue impact of all-electronic tolling. If the Turnpike Commission is successful in achieving the above risk-reduction strategies over the next five years, the proposed 50 percent toll increase for customers without E-ZPass may not be necessary. Something less than that may turn out to be enough to cover any additional costs.

As this project progresses, there will be opportunities for customers to review and provide feedback on any new rates, as well as the other features of any new toll collection system. We will work hard to ensure a smooth transition for our customers.

Roger Nutt is chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

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