High-speed electronic tolling technology may be the key to building the next generation of U.S. highways, but the future seems to be getting off to a bumpy start in the Washington, DC., area.
In Maryland, the uber-green Inter County Connector (ICC) isn’t generating as much of the legal tender green as expected. Nearly a year after the 18-mile, $2.56 billion electronic toll-only highway opened for business, one of every three non-EZ pass users fails to pay the follow-up bill for the unpaid toll.
That may not sound like a lot—only 2.8 percent of ICC users, but the $670,000 in lost revenue during the first six months of 2012 is important to the Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the ICC.
Mooching motorists are a problem with every toll system—the North Texas Tollway system is owed more than $12.5 million by people who skipped out on paying in 2011—and the lack of a collection barrier for non-EZ pass drivers to pay up doesn’t help the ICC’s cause. Of course the absence of barriers and their associated congestion, convenience, and pollution issues contribute to the appeal of all-electronic tolling.
Compounding the ICC’s toll issues is the fact that the MTA has reached its debt limit, forcing the agency to raise tolls on all its facilities multiple times in the last year.
And according to the Washington Post article, the MTA has yet to use other common enforcement methods such as vehicle registration suspensions and legal action. NTTA is taking a more public tack, posting the names of the non-paying vehicle owners on its website. About all it can do is pester the violator with letters, potentially ad infinitum.
MTA has asked the state’s legislature to authorize the use of those more aggressive collection methods, perhaps establishing a “Hall of Shame” for the worst offenders.
Over in Virginia, the issue with the newly opened I-495 Express Lanes is somewhat different. The problem isn’t a lack of business on the 14-mile, $1.4 billion stretch of congestion-priced toll lanes that opened this past weekend; it’s that motorists aren’t quite sure what to do with them yet.
Unlike the ICC, which was a greenfield project, the Express Lanes are integrated into the existing Capital Beltway, which doubles as a through route and suburban Northern Virginia’s “Main Street.” The lanes also use all-electronic tolling to collect the fees, which vary depending on traffic conditions and how far the user travels.
Nearly every morning of the Express Lanes’ existence has been marked with crashes at the entrance to the northbound lanes, creating more congestion rather than alleviating it as planned. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and its P3 partner Fluor-Transurban are working with the Virginia State Police to expedite I-495 drivers’ learning curve, updating electronic signs adding colored reflectors to the barriers, and extending lane markings.
Once the crash problem is solved, VDOT and Fluor-Transurban can then concentrate on how quickly the Express Lanes meet their anticipated goal of eliminating Beltway congestion, and whether they experience the same kind on issues with non-payers. (Currently, drivers who missed tolls are encouraged to fess up and pay up, rather than get a bill for the toll plus a “small fee.”)
It’s an issue that VDOT will have to watch closely, as other all-electronic toll projects such as the I-95 Express Lanes are on the way. Collecting missed tolls may be even more problematic, as those violators may include out-of-state drivers who have little intention of paying extra to speed their journey through the Commonwealth.
And if the nice and not-so-nice approaches don’t work, more creative collection strategies may be in order. Perhaps affixing scarlet letters (a’la the Nathanial Hawthorne story) to the offending vehicles will be next.