Bob Poole in Wall Street Journal on getting rid of toll plazas (OPINION & COMMENT)
The Wall Street Journal oped page today (2007-11-05 pA18) carries a piece by Bob Poole urging tollers in America to completely do away with toll booths and go all electronic. He is confident private sector tollers can be counted on to "put their customers' interest first, by eliminating cash tolling. He adds: "Since most U.S. toll roads are still operated by public-sector agencies, however, voters should demand that they phase out toll booths and toll plazas by a date certain - a decade from now should be plenty of time."
His argument: "No more delays, accidents and pollution caused by long lines of waiting cars. No more need for large swathes of land for toll plazas, making it possible to fit toll roads into tight corridors where congestion relief is needed. Lower payroll costs, no buildings and no cash "shrinkage" (i.e., theft) by collectors."
He then cites the spread of transponder tolling in the US, and the development of open road tolling Illinois Tollway style with cash on the side. And the pioneering completely cashless toll systems in Toronto Canada, Melbourne Australia and Santiago Chile, the cashless HOT lanes projects here, Westpark Houston, Tampa's El, and the several further moves towards all electronic tolling.
He mentions the moves to go cashless in Dallas (NTTA), Miami, PANYNJ, and Denver E470.
Then he asks: "Why isn't everybody doing this, since the technology works and has been proven overseas? There are legitimate concerns to be weighed. Unless the toll road already has high transponder market share, some fraction of cash customers may simply stop using the toll road if the cash option is eliminated. There are also real costs (staffing and technology) involved in video license-plate recognition and billing. And there is the problem of what to do with all the now-redundant toll collectors, especially if they are unionized."
Poole's piece in the largest circulation serious newspaper in the country is a terrific plug for the transformative reality and further potential of new technologies. He says he was asked for the piece by the WSJ oped page after he'd posted on the theme in his Surface Transportation Innovations email newsletter. [Anyone interested in getting this excellent monthly on a regular basis should email him to be put on his list: email@example.com]
Tolling is still sometimes opposed on the grounds that it "creates congestion" based on images of cars queuing to pay cash tolls. Pieces like Poole's are a reminder that tolling ain't what it used to be, and that where it is what it used to be, it needn't be.
Here is Poole's piece in full:
Life in the Slow Lane
By ROBERT W. POOLE JR.
WALL STREET JOURNAL November 5, 2007; Page A18
Americans are going to be driving on toll roads a lot more in the years ahead. One of the least pleasant experiences of this form of travel is the toll booth. But it doesn't have to be this way. We can, if we want, get rid of every toll booth and toll plaza in the country.
Technology is leading the way. First came windshield-mounted transponders, like the Northeast's E-ZPass, Florida's SunPass and California's FasTrak. Transponders were first introduced merely to speed up passage through toll booths. Then engineers figured out they worked fine at highway speeds, and that plazas could be eliminated for "open-road" tolling of vehicles with transponders. Only cash-payers, off to the side, would have to queue up. This transformation has been completed on the Illinois Tollway system and is under way on Florida's Turnpike and a number of others.
Engineers are now developing new toll roads from scratch that are entirely cashless. On the Melbourne CityLink in Australia and the new toll motorway system in Santiago, Chile, you either pay by transponder, or you call in and register your license-plate number for certain days when you plan to use the toll road. They bill you when their video cameras pick out your plate number.
And in Toronto, Canada, you can drive onto Highway 407 with no transponder and no reservation. They will simply video your license plate and send you a bill. The 407 has had this system since 1997. It is one of the world's most successful new toll roads.
Why do away with toll booths? No more delays, accidents and pollution caused by long lines of waiting cars. No more need for large swathes of land for toll plazas, making it possible to fit toll roads into tight corridors where congestion relief is needed. Lower payroll costs, no buildings and no cash "shrinkage" (i.e., theft) by collectors.
Today there are only a handful of no-cash toll roads in the U.S. The half-dozen high-occupancy toll lanes now operational in California, Colorado, Minnesota, Texas and Utah are all cashless, as they have to be to make use of market pricing, with toll rates changing to reflect periods of higher and lower demand. So is the recently built Westpark toll road in Houston and Tampa's new elevated express toll lanes on the crosstown expressway. Several new toll roads in Texas are being planned as cashless, and so are planned HOT lanes in northern Virginia, Miami, Dallas and elsewhere. But I've been able to identify only two existing toll-road systems that have made firm plans and set deadlines for getting rid of all toll booths: the North Texas Tollway Authority in Dallas and the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority.
Why isn't everybody doing this, since the technology works and has been proven overseas? There are legitimate concerns to be weighed. Unless the toll road already has high transponder market share, some fraction of cash customers may simply stop using the toll road if the cash option is eliminated. There are also real costs (staffing and technology) involved in video license-plate recognition and billing. And there is the problem of what to do with all the now-redundant toll collectors, especially if they are unionized.
It is not coincidental that the pioneers in cashless tolling have been investor-owned toll road companies: the 91 Express Lanes in California, Highway 407 in Toronto, the Cross-Israel Highway, the Melbourne CityLink and Santiago's toll motorways. All of these cashless toll roads were developed by private companies under long-term public-private concession agreements.
It is also not coincidental that the public-sector toll agencies in Florida and Texas going cashless are among the most businesslike and entrepreneurial, in a public-sector industry that has historically been very conservative and in some states highly politicized.
To a company whose business is offering its customers high-quality mobility (and to public toll agencies that think and operate like businesses), going cashless and boothless is a no-brainer. One of the very first actions taken by the companies that leased the Chicago Skyway in 2005 and the Indiana Toll Road in 2006 was to introduce electronic toll collection.
Elsewhere one can sense the first stirrings of change. In recent weeks, the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and Denver's E-470 toll agency have all announced studies of going cashless. The new North Carolina Turnpike Authority is seriously considering developing its new toll roads without any toll booths or plazas.
I'm confident that the growing number of private-sector toll companies can be counted on to put their customers' interest first, by eliminating cash tolling. Since most U.S. toll roads are still operated by public-sector agencies, however, voters should demand that they phase out toll booths and toll plazas by a date certain -- a decade from now should be plenty of time.
Mr. Poole is director of transportation studies at the Reason Foundation. An engineering graduate of MIT, he has advised the U.S. Department of Transportation and a number of state DOTs.
end WSJ piece
COMMENT: We need to make distinctions here and set priorities. For new toll facilities the case for cashless is overwhelming. Less land needed, less equipment, much less capital expense and running costs, and greater speed and safety. So long as the law supports deterrence of violations - enforcement - the increased losses from violations should be way less than the cost savings.
Cashless new facilities are almost a no-brainer.
On existing toll facilities the mainline toll plazas on highways where the speed is otherwise 60 to 70mph (100 to 115km/hr) are clearly a priority for all electronic tolling. They are where stop-to-pay and manual toll collection creates the biggest congestion costs and the greatest risk of rearender collisions.
Long barrier system tollroads have largely got open road tolling through the middle now:
- the four Illinois Tollways
- the southern half of the Garden State Parkway
- tollroads in Dallas and Houston
- southern California's tollroads were built with ORT through the middle as were those in Denver
Others with barrier plazas are part way to converting them to ORT-thru-the-center:
- Orlando's four tollroads
- Miami and Tampa
- Florida's Turnpike is starting
- Dulles Toll Road has a compromise
Quite a number of fully stop-to-pay mainline plazas remain however:
- I-95 Delaware
- I-95 Maryland one direction
- northern part of the Garden State Parkway
- southern end of the Maine Turnpike I-95
- New Hampshire I-95 and other turnpikes NH
- Maryland I-95 Kennedy Highway one direction
- West Virginia Turnpike
- Richmond VA's metropolitan expressway and Powhite Parkway
- Massachusetts Turnpike at MA128
- Dulles Greenway
- Indiana Toll Road western barrier system
- Chicago Skyway
Unfortunately, contrary to Poole, the three private concessionaires on old US tollroads (the last three above) are lagging their public sector counterparts. It's the baleful European influence, the European gate mentality, only seen in the US in New York City's MTA Bridges and Tunnels. Even though Australia-based Macquarie has a major share in these roads and although Australian tollroads are among the leaders in cashless tolling they have left toll operations on the three US tollroads to European operators (Cintra in the case of the Indiana TR and Chicago Skyway and Autostrade in the case of the Dulles Greenway.
In the midwest motorists on the state tollways of Illinois can fly through the ORT plazas at 65 or 70mph (100 to 125km/hr) but when they get to the private Chicago Skyway and ITR they have to slow to 10 or 15mph (20 to 25km/hr). Similarly in northern Virginia they can fly through the Tysons Corner plaza of VDOT's at 50mph (80km/hr) but they face gates and 5 to 10mph (8 to 15km/hr) speeds at the Dulles Greenway plaza down the road.
It is probably unsustainable politically. In any case Poole's argument for cashless applies very strongly here.
ORT-thru-the-middle while a huge improvement in service for motorists on the conventional toll plaza with serried ranks of single stop-to-pay and roll-through lanes has disadvantages as compared to all electronic:
- it's expensive because of the need to move staff safely from one side of the plaza to the other requiring a staff tunnel or overbridge plus - these days - elevators
- it may require lengthening the plaza area at each end to provide for safe diverge and merge of stopping and highway speed traffic
- operations costs remain high
The power of Poole's argument is somewhat less on the many ticket system tollroads because apart from the two ends most of the tolling is on lowspeed entries and exits. To be sure there are toll collection savings but few time savings or collision reduction arguments for cashless along the ticket system tollroads.
These ticket system tollroads include:
- New Jersey Turnpike
- central section of Florida's Turnpike
- most of the Pennsylvania Turnpike
- Ohio Turnpike
- the Indiana Toll Road except for the commuter segment in the west
- Kansas Turnpike
- much of the Massachusetts Turnpike
- most of the New York State Thruway
All along the ticket tollroads entering traffic is usually coming in on a looping ramp from surface streets, while exiting traffic has similar slowing ramps and beyond the side plazas usually surface streets and sometimes traffic signals.
Cashless tolling at ramp plazas on point toll tollroads is being driven by the inability of coin machines to handle tolls now that inflation has taken so many over $1 while the quarter (25c) is the largest commonly circulating coin in America. There again the arguments are not really about saving motorist time or safety, just the impracticality of cash. A few are trying machines that handle bills or allow the motorist to swipe a credit card but such arm-out-the-car-window activities are awkward especially with the driver's elevation above the pavement so variable from one vehicle to another.
The power of Poole's argument for abolition of cash collection varies on bridges and tunnels. Some of these could otherwise operate at highspeed, certainly the more modern ones.
In the New York area the George Washington, Verrazano Narrows, Henry Hudson parkway, Throgs Neck and Whitestone Bridges would all work much better gateless and cashless, but the old facilities are more problematic - the Holland Tunnel, the Triborough Bridge, the East River tunnels. They have narrow lanes and short sight distances, sometimes sudden death ramps. The toll bridges in Philadelphia, the tunnels of Baltimore and some of the bridges in the San Francisco Bay area are the same.
Many toll bridges have been built with ramps just beyond the toll plaza. They can't do good ORT-thru-the-center tolling because of weaving problems downstream, but they could jump all the way from stop-to-pay to all-electronic and cashless. The Delaware Memorial Bridge NJ-DE is an example of that.
Some make use of toll plazas to control traffic in dangerous weather conditions. Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel is the classic example, but the Indiana Toll Road and Ohio Turnpike limit triple trailers and long doubles at entry toll plazas in high wind conditions. They could use substitute methods for weather restrictions of course but again the time and cost savings potential is much smaller.
There are a huge number of toll crossings - all but one are bridges - on the US borders of Mexico and Canada. Because of the routine queuing there for customs, immigration and security clearance there is little to be achieved by speeding traffic through the toll points because they are not usually the bottleneck.
The same goes for a lot of low speed toll bridges and causeways, most of them to barrier islands around the coasts. They are usually connected to much slower speed roads on either side.
Cash is going to be used less and less at these anyway for the same reason cash is being used less in supermarkets, gas stations, restaurants, and stores. Electronic payment is more convenient for customers and cheaper to handle than cash. Cash is on the way out - for almost everything except tax avoidance and criminal activities!
I'm not sure we need a politically imposed ten year deadline for elimination of cash toll collection, as Poole proposes. We certainly need to get rid of remaining stop-to-pay barrier plazas on major tollroads but we should do that in three or four years, not ten. I-95 for example should be freed of conventional barrier plazas in MD, DE, NJ, NH, ME by about 2010. The same goes for major modern bridges.
As for the rest - the side plazas on the ticket systems, the old and small bridges and border crossing and barrier island tolls - I'm not sure a one-size-fits-all policy is workable or needed. Cash may be gone from many of them anyway in ten years time and if some of them still handle cash it won't matter much one way or another. Most motorists will be driving through electronic toll lanes.