Thursday, October 20, 2005

BALTIMORE (AP) — Motorists in Maryland will be able to breeze through toll gates at highway speeds under upgrades to the EZ Pass electronic toll collection system.

The state will spend $183 million to improve the toll collection system under a contract approved by the Board of Public Works on Wednesday. ACS State and Local Solutions Inc. was awarded the eight-year contract to replace the current collection system, which has been in place since the 1990s.

The new technology — already implemented at some toll booths in New Jersey — allows drivers with EZ Pass to maintain their speed while driving through toll collection lanes. With the system now in use, drivers are supposed to slow to 5 mph to allow sensors to read their electronic toll devices.

Trent Kittleman, executive director of the Maryland Transportation Authority, told the board that the authority was considering eliminating all toll booths on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to ease summertime traffic jams.

Mrs. Kittleman said she asked her staff four months ago to draft a plan to convert the entire bridge to “overhead tolling,” which would spare all motorists from having to stop or slow down for toll booths.

Under the system, toll booths would be replaced by overpasses under which motorists could drive without slowing down. Sensors would deduct tolls from EZ Pass accounts, while cameras would photograph the license plates of vehicles without the electronic devices. Registered owners would receive bills for the tolls in the mail.

Mrs. Kittleman cautioned that moving to overhead tolling would be “probably a three-year process at best.” She later told the Annapolis Capital that she hadn’t intended to announce the plan, but Comptroller William Donald Schaefer pushed her to discuss moves to reduce backups on the Bay Bridge.

In addition to the new reader technology for EZ Pass lanes, officials will look at other improvements meant to keep traffic flowing. Engineers will examine each toll facility to determine where lanes can be widened to accommodate faster-moving vehicles. Cameras used to photograph toll violators will be replaced.

Mrs. Kittleman said the new technology would be particularly beneficial for new toll facilities, including the planned toll lanes on Interstate 95 and the proposed Intercounty Connector, which would link Interstate 95 in Prince George’s County with Interstate 270 in Montgomery County.

Officials estimate it will take two years to implement the upgrades at existing toll facilities. By the time the new technology is in place, the current system will be eight years old.

“In computing terms, that’s a lifetime,” said Philip Underhill, director of marketing and business development for Dallas-based ACS. The company has operated Maryland’s electronic tolls since the state introduced EZ Pass in the mid-1990s.

EZ Pass also can be used to pay tolls in Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, West Virginia and Massachusetts.

Upgrades allowing motorists to go through toll booths faster on the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike have improved the flow of traffic significantly, said Joe Orlando, a spokesman for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.

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