Wednesday, January 03, 2007

TxDOT springs Big Brother tolling on an unwitting public

Third way to pay toll added: Drive through and get a bill

State decides at last moment to allow 'open-road' tolling on three Central Texas roads

January 03, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2006

So, you don't have a toll tag, but you still don't want to stop at toll booths?

No problem, Texas Department of Transportation officials said Wednesday, just three days before the agency will begin charging for cash customers to drive on the three Central Texas toll roads that opened late last year.

Drivers will be given a third way to pay to drive on the toll roads, a new approach in the rapidly evolving world of toll roads typically called "open-road tolling" or "video tolling." It will be more expensive than paying cash or using a toll tag.

Under the plan, drivers who don't have a toll tag nonetheless will be able to remain on the main lanes at the 70 mile-per-hour speed limit and use the faster, nonbooth lane on entrance and exit ramps.

Cameras suspended on overhead gantries (alongside equipment that reads electronic toll tags) will shoot pictures of the license plates of such drivers and the registered owner of the car will be billed. Invoices would come once a month, and the toll charges would be approximately 33 percent higher than the normal cash rate of about 12 cents a mile.

"It's something we talked about several months ago, but not seriously until very recently," said David Powell, the Transportation Department's director of toll information technology and operations. "It wasn't until literally just a few days ago that we said, 'You know, we are able to do this, and we should.' "

Those cameras already had been installed at the overhead gantries on the Texas 130, Texas 45 North and Loop 1 tollways (41 miles of which opened in November and December) to capture license plate numbers of scofflaws so they could be mailed a violation notice. Those violations were to carry a $5 added charge, which the Transportation Department had said was its estimated cost to process them.

Under this new approach, however, that added cost to the driver will be much smaller.

For instance, the charge at most ramps is 50 cents at toll booths, meaning that the surcharge would likely be 15 cents. At the Texas 130 mainlane plazas, on the other hand, where the cash charge is $1.50, the surcharge might be 50 cents. Powell said that the Texas Transportation Commission will have to decide on the exact numbers at its meeting late this month. Until those charges are set, open-road customers will pay the same amount as people who stop at toll booths.

So how will the processing cost go from $5 to just a few cents? Powell said human involvement for video tolling will be minimal, particularly after the department works out the kinks on computer software that can read the license plate numbers from the photos. With video tolling, there will be one mailing a month instead of a separate mailing each time a scofflaw runs through a toll point. People who don't pay after receiving that first invoice will get a second invoice, Powell said. Then, if they still don't pay, they'll get a violation notice. And that $5 charge will apply to each toll transaction on the bill.

The last-minute change raises other questions:

•Why now? After several months of publicity about the two ways to pay — at cash booths and with toll tags — adding a third way could confuse the public. But it also could increase the volume of customers, and tamp down ill-will in the long run. Drivers who blunder onto a toll road inadvertently and then get a bill with a small surcharge on the toll will be happier than if they got a similar mailing carrying $5 violation charges.

Powell said that the department's November and December opening of two "open-road" tollways in Dallas and Tyler (the first in the United States, Powell said) convinced the agency that the billing system could work. And the agency had already planned to have open-road tolling — no booths, that is — on the Texas 45 Southeast toll road that will begin construction later this year and connect to Texas 130 in Mustang Ridge.

Having two connecting roads with different billing approaches would be confusing to the public, Powell said.

"This was something we were going to be faced with eventually anyway," he said.

•Won't that be a problem with the 183-A tollway? That toll road, under construction by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority and due to open in March, at least as of now will not have open-road tolling. It will connect seamlessly (through flyover bridges) with Texas 45 North. So, in theory, a customer without a toll tag could find himself getting an invoice from the state transportation department for one part of a trip and a violation notice from the mobility authority for traveling that extra mile or two.

Toll transactions for all four roads are being handled by the same contractor, the Washington Group, out of one customer service center near the Loop 1 tollway.

"We've had discussions about this with them," Powell said.

Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the mobility authority, said that his agency for now has decided against adding the open-road option. Heiligenstein said that because of problems with defunct, foreign or obscured license plates, the agency might find itself unable to collect on up to 20 percent of tolls.

With a mixture of toll booths and toll tag readers only, he said, that "error rate" would be 3 percent or lower. And the mobility authority's ability to pay back the $234 million it borrowed to build the 11.6-mile road depends solely on toll revenue.

The state, on the other hand, can turn to gas tax revenue if toll revenue comes up short.

"The right people are working out the kinks in video tolling, that being TxDOT," Heiligenstein said. "We can't be the ones working out the kinks."

•What about all those toll booths? Was it a waste to build them? The Loop 1 tollway plaza near Merrilltown Drive has 16 cash booths (the plazas on Texas 45 North and Texas 130 are much smaller). If enough people use toll tags and open-road tolling, many of those booths might become unnecessary.

"I honestly hope we have a surplus" of booths, Powell said. "I can't say we would have done anything different if we'd have known (about video tolling plans). When you have a multimillion dollar project, you want to be careful not to make any mistakes. And to undersize the toll plazas would be a big mistake."; 445-3698

How to get a TxTag

Drivers with a TxTag, a windshield sticker with a tiny transponder, will be able to drive toll roads statewide without stopping at booths and will pay 10 percent less than cash customers. The tag is free (for now), but you'll have to establish an account and prepay $20 in tolls. You can get a tag by calling (888) 468-9824, going to or visiting the state's tollway customer service center at 12719 Burnet Road.

Three ways to pay

Cash: Drivers would stop at booths on some entrance and exits ramps and, at certain points in the run of the tollways, would have to pause at toll plazas to pay charges. The cash charges — 50 cents at most ramps and 75 cents to $1.50 for the mainlane plazas — are considered the basic toll rates.

Toll tags: Motorists can get a prepaid toll tag and affix it to their windshield. With a tag, which communicates with overhead detectors, drivers can remain on the main lanes of the tollways at full speed and can enter or exit on toll ramps without stopping at a booth. Cars with toll tags will not be subject to tolls until February, when they will pay 50 percent of the basic toll rates. Then, in March, toll tag users will begin to pay their permanent rate, which is 90 percent of the cash toll rate.

Open-road tolls: Cars without a toll tag can still stay on the main lanes or avoid ramp booths, but will pay a surcharge of about 33 percent over the basic cash price. Overhead cameras at toll plazas will record a car's license plate number and the owner will be mailed a monthly invoice with the charges.

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