"It's a marketing scheme, designed to force people to buy a tag."
August 15, 2007
By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER
The Dallas Morning News
Paying tolls will soon be easier – if not more popular – for drivers in North Texas, where tollbooths and cash baskets are being phased out fast.
The North Texas Tollway Authority decided Wednesday to eliminate all of its 78 tollbooths over the next three years, paving the way for an all-electronic system by 2010.
The new approach will use cameras and sensors to monitor which cars use the growing number of area toll roads. TollTag customers won't see a change. Drivers without TollTags will be billed at the address associated with their license plates.
The move to an all-electronic system will eliminate 418 full-time jobs, NTTA officials said. But no layoffs are planned. Officials hope to find new jobs for all employees who want to stay.
The change comes at the front end of what is expected to be an extraordinary period of growth for the tollway authority. Daily transactions and the total miles of toll roads are likely to double over the next three years as the system begins collecting tolls on State Highway 121 and existing toll roads are expanded.
Rick Herrington, NTTA deputy executive director, said at least 100 new maintenance workers and at least 70 new clerical workers will be hired as well.
"If we weren't doing this, we were looking at expanding to about 1,200 total jobs anyway," Mr. Herrington said. "Now we think by moving these folks over the next three years, we'll stay at right where we are."
The affected workers will maintain their current pay. Salaries for tollbooth workers range from $24,000 to $36,000 a year, said NTTA spokesman Sam Lopez.
Blazing new trails
By getting rid of tollbooths entirely, NTTA is entering uncharted territory, at least in the U.S. The approach is common in other parts of the world, but only one other major tolling authority in this country has taken a similar step.
In Florida, the Miami Dade Expressway Authority voted last year to eliminate tollbooths – and 150 operators – but will make the change gradually between now and 2012.
When the decision was first floated in Miami two years ago, it met with stiff opposition, said Stephan Andriuk, director of toll operations for the agency, known as MDX.
"The push back was because people didn't understand what we were doing," he said. "So we began a big campaign and started talking to the public. Eventually, people started to buy into the idea that they'd be saving gas and eliminating pollution by not sitting at the booth."
He said the first segments without tollbooths opened last month. Feedback from drivers has been about 3-to-1 in favor of the changes, he said.
Both Miami and Dallas officials expect to see big jumps in the total miles of toll roads in their areas over the next few years. All-electronic toll collection will make it easier to accommodate that new traffic, they said.
Approach has critics
Some critics say Texas has moved too aggressively to encourage increased tolling – and higher rates. Tracking toll road traffic with computers or cameras makes a bad idea worse, they say.
"We have concerns about all-electronic toll collections, and they start with privacy issues," said Sal Costello, founder of the Austin-based anti-toll group Texas Toll Party. "They build these databases, and there are no laws in place to make the contractors or subcontractors or TxDOT keep all that data they collect private."
Worse still, Mr. Costello said, an all-electronic system will push more people to get TollTags. Eliminating cash from the equation will make drivers less aware of increasing toll rates, he said.
"It's a marketing scheme, designed to force people to buy a tag," he said.
Those who prefer not to buy a TollTag will still be able to use NTTA toll roads. Those drivers will receive a bill at the address associated with their license plates.
Still, Tony Marsh, 25, of Dallas said he would rather pay cash. He said he only uses a toll road a few times a year and doesn't like the all-electronic booths.
"I would want to pay cash the few times that I use it," he said.
Thus far, Houston's toll road authority has chosen to keep toll booths on most of its highways.
Meanwhile, NTTA plans to train tollbooth operators for new positions that have already begun.
"We recognize this will affect our employees who work at our tollbooths and other toll collection areas," said Mr. Herrington, the NTTA official. "The NTTA board made a decision that provides the highest benefit to our customers and to our organization."
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