Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Defense contractor explains how it will monitor Texas toll roads



Tyler Morning Telegraph
Copyright 2006

Thinking of ways to beat Tyler's new Loop 49 toll road?

Better think again, warn transportation experts.

Members of the North East Texas Regional Mobility Authority were presented with a sneak peek Tuesday on how the future Loop 49 toll road will work, and what happens when motorists try to trick the system.

Simply put, the technology is so sophisticated, even the most speediest of drivers won't be able to beat it, the Texas Turnpike Authority claims.

Here's how the program is proposed to work: Motorists have to pay a toll if they want to use the roadway.

Those who don't will be cited with a violation and fined $5 per incident, officials said.

Under the current plan, payments will be collected electronically through pre-payments, made by either credit card or with cash at participating locations.

And there will be kiosks located along the tollway to serve those who may inadvertently enter without a toll tag.

People who purchase a tag will receive an identifying number, which must be affixed to the windshield so that it can be read electronically by the tolling authority, officials said.

"Laser scanners will be used to determine whether the vehicle is a car, truck or motorcycle, plus we'll have video," said Chris Hopkins, program manager for Raytheon working for the Texas Department of Transportation's open road program. "Pictures of the front and rear data will be sent to a data center."

Computers will flank the roadway to record data on what vehicles are passing through the system, based on photos taken of the front and rear vehicle plates.

"If they are behind in payments, it will associate their tag with a violation," Hopkins said. "That's the whole idea behind an electric system - you don't have to stop, you don't have to slow down."

RMA officials voiced inquiries about the accuracy, citing a recent instance in the Dallas area in which a woman racked up $76,000 in toll violations.

"We don't want to have that situation happen here," said Jeff Austin III, RMA chairman. "We want to make sure people are using the roads as they are intended. It is important to have the revenue to fund what we're building."

Speaking on the possibility of avoiding penalties, Catherine Sanchez, representing the Texas Turnpike Authority," said tests revealed 99.9 percent accuracy on determining what cars are passing through the gates.

The system is designed to quickly identify, contact and assess violators. Those who refuse to pay are referred to a collection agency and, potentially, law enforcement.

"We can take them to jail," Ms. Sanchez said.

Also Tuesday, the RMA selected PBS&J to begin work on the engineering aspects of the new tollway, approved by the Texas Transportation Commission.

The firm was chosen from a select group of firms, selected because of their reputations in the industry, and previous experience engineering tollways.

Federal authorities had previously approved the tolling concept, but state approval enables the RMA to secure $12.5 million in toll equity grant funding.

Money derived from those toll equity grants will be used to fund design plans, specifications and engineering for the portion of Loop 49 that extends from Texas Highway 155 West to Interstate 20, and Paluxy Drive to Texas Highway 110, RMA officials said.

The primary purpose of building Loop 49 is to help encourage economic development and reduce roadway congestion, especially along the South Broadway Avenue corridor, which attracts more than 44,000 vehicles a day.

If all goes according to plan, the first section of Loop 49, covering the area between U.S. 69 and Texas Highway 155, is slated to open in late summer.

Ground was broken earlier this month on the second leg, which is expected to connect U.S. 69 and Farm-to-Market Road 756 (Paluxy Drive) by early 2008.

And TxDOT predicts that the remaining western portion of the roadway, connecting Texas 155 and Interstate 20, could be completed in as few as seven years, thanks in part to tolling.

Community leaders throughout East Texas have voiced support for the project, which has been carried out largely between interested civic leaders in Smith and Gregg counties.

The North East Texas RMA was formed in April 2005 as a joint effort between Smith and Gregg counties, following the formation of RMAs in Austin, San Antonio, McAllen and Grayson County.

The Texas Legislature authorized the creation of RMAs in 2001 to help communities construct, operate and maintain turnpike projects themselves instead of waiting years for state funding.

Jacque Hilburn covers Tyler city government, planning and zoning and the Parks Board. She can be reached at 903.596.6282. e-mail: news@tylerpaper.com

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