March 5, 2013

Highway-speed tolls coming to Maine Turnpike

The high-speed E-ZPass lanes will open April 1 at the New Gloucester toll plaza but could expand.

By Dennis Hoey dhoey@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

It could be a dream come true for drivers who don't like to stop to hand money to a toll taker, or even slow down at a toll plaza.

click image to enlarge

The new highway-speed toll lane in New Gloucester, shown near the end of the construction phase before signs were put up.

Courtesy photo / Maine Turnpike Authority

Starting next month, drivers who have the E-ZPass will be able to zip through the New Gloucester toll plaza on the Maine Turnpike -- northbound and southbound -- at speeds up to 65 mph.

The Maine Turnpike Authority announced Monday that it is taking the first step toward joining several other states that have high-tech, all-electronic highway-speed toll lanes.

Open-road tolling, which allows drivers to pay tolls at highway speed, is used in several states including California, Florida, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Texas.

The toll plaza on Interstate 95 in Hampton, N.H., has highway-speed toll lanes in both directions.

"This is the way that tolling will be done in the future," said Dan Morin, spokesman for the Maine Turnpike Authority. "The technology now exists where we can collect tolls at high speeds."

In Maine, each window-mounted E-ZPass will be scanned by a computer as it passes through the toll plaza. The E-ZPass account will be billed no matter how fast the car or truck might be going.

The system, which will go into effect April 1, will be used only at the New Gloucester toll plaza -- for now.

Turnpike officials say they are looking at installing highway-speed tolls at other locations along the highway between York and West Gardiner.

"The major goals of this project are to improve convenience, cut operating costs and reduce vehicle emissions," said Peter Mills, the turnpike authority's executive director, in a prepared statement.

Mills said the new toll system will be able to electronically process tolls for as many as 3,000 vehicles an hour, compared with 325 vehicles an hour in a cash lane.

"E-ZPass highway-speed toll lanes will also save time, while reducing fuel costs and emissions for most commercial trucks," Mills said.

"It's going to improve efficiency and safety for the trucking industry," said Brian Parke, president and chief executive officer for the Maine Motor Transport Association.

Parke said that with the current toll system, truck drivers must gear down when they approach a plaza and gear back up as they move past it. The process burns fuel and wears down trucks' braking and gear systems.

"I don't see any downside for the trucking industry," Parke said of the new toll collection system.

Design and construction of the highway-speed toll plaza in New Gloucester began last year, after the turnpike authority awarded a contract to Wyman & Simpson Inc. of Richmond. The project cost around $4.4 million.

The new highway-speed lane will be separated from three adjacent mixed toll lanes -- cash and E-ZPass -- by a concrete barrier. The barrier is designed to keep fast-moving vehicles away from those that are moving slowly.

Under the current system, an E-ZPass driver can drive through any tollbooth without stopping but is not supposed to go any faster than 10 mph, according to Morin.

"This is new to the people who use the Maine Turnpike," Morin said. "Our first and foremost priority is safety."

Morin said the turnpike authority will begin a public education campaign aimed at raising awareness about how the new toll system will operate.

The authority's greatest fear -- it has happened in other states -- is that a cash-paying driver could mistakenly enter a highway-speed toll lane and try to stop, back up and pull over after realizing their error.

Morin said that has been seen at the York toll plaza, where drivers who mistakenly get into an E-ZPass lane stop and walk over to another booth to pay a toll taker.

Morin said the highway-speed toll plaza will be ready to open once it has been thoroughly tested.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

dhoey@pressherald.com

 

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