What comes next?
After the successful launch of open road tolling at its New Gloucester plaza, the Maine Turnpike Authority prepares for the next chapter in toll collection
By Kathryn Buxton
On April 1, Maine Turnpike Authority marked a major achievement when the agency officially opened its first open road tolling (ORT) facility to the public at the mainline toll barrier in New Gloucester. The launch of the new technology enables travelers with E-ZPass devices to pay their tolls at that location without stopping, and it marks Maine’s entry into what many hope is a new era in toll collection.
Still, there is work to be done before the authority can move ahead with its plans to introduce the next generation of electronic tolling at other mainline plazas, according to Maine Turnpike Authority Executive Director Peter Mills. That will include a re-evaluation of plans for the Maine Turnpike’s York toll plaza and close scrutiny of the return on investment that various tolling options promise there and at other locations.
According to Mills, when the agency does begin construction on a new mainline facility, it will be at a location that fulfills criteria for safety – a long straightaway with no curves or bridges to obstruct drivers’ views.
It’s all about “decision time for drivers,” said Mills in a recent interview at Maine Turnpike Authority offices in Portland. It’s also about the decision time needed by the board of directors to weigh the benefits versus the considerable costs to engineer and construct a new electronic tolling facility with the benefits it will have for the people of Maine.
“We have no plans to do anything yet,” said Mills, who added when that decision is made, it will be at the behest of the board. “Dan Wathen [MTA board chair] will say, ‘What’s it going to cost? We need a cost-benefit analysis,’” said Mills.
Plans on hold
Mills also discussed the Maine Turnpike’s long-held plans to implement open road tolling at the York toll plaza. For more than a decade, the authority has been keen to replace the problematic old plaza – built on curve, in swampy land and sinking – with a safer, modern electronic tolling facility.
Those plans have been on hold for nearly four years due to local residents’ objections to the proposed design and location of the new toll plaza. They are likely to remain suspended for at least the next few months as the authority searches for a solution that will be more acceptable to local residents, while achieving the turnpike’s goals of modernization, efficiency, equity and traveler and employee safety.
Mills said the Maine Turnpike Authority continues to explore alternatives, and to study the volume and makeup of traffic at the plaza’s existing cash lanes, to see if the turnpike could build a structure with a smaller footprint. As it weighs its options, the authority also is reviewing other states’ systems and looking at emerging trends. Still, he said that whatever solution is found may ultimately have to be a matter of give-and-take between local interests, the turnpike and the people of Maine.
“This is a complex issue and there are powerful arguments on both sides,” said Mills. “The most important part of my job is to keep an open mind to make sure my board has the information they need to make a decision.”
One of the issues is about toll equity and the potential revenue loss from non-E-ZPass drivers if Maine opts for an all-electronic tolling plaza. The issue of toll equity is, he said, “a political issue” the authority has been trying to address through its recent reciprocity agreement with New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
Maine currently has no such agreement with Canada or the other 47 states, and some say that could make a move to all-electronic toll collection (AET) problematic.
“Thirty-eight percent of our customers in York pay by cash and in August, seven percent of those are Canadian,” said Mills. “If we were to go to AET in York now, some believe we would do so on the backs of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts drivers because we have no enforcement power over those other drivers.”
“We do have enforcement reciprocity with New Hampshire and Massachusetts that is encouraging both of those states to move to AET,” Mills said in follow-up comments.
He added: “When you add up the traffic from New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine, for both E-ZPass and cash, you have accounted for most of the car traffic that travels through Maine. The question is: When will it be practical to make an AET transition?”
The uncertainty about where, when and what new technology will be introduced at the remaining mainline plazas has ramifications for the authority’s long-term plans for all of its toll infrastructure – specifically for the aging technology that enables the organization to collect tolls electronically via E-ZPass transponders. Taking care of that technology as it reaches the end of its anticipated life cycle has risen to the top of the turnpike’s priorities as it has become more apparent that the implementation of new toll technology will take longer to roll out.
The issue, as Mills explained it, is one of obsolescence. The technology installed when the turnpike first introduced the E-ZPass system more than eight years ago has become outdated. That system includes a series of metal treadles that count axles as vehicles pass through the toll plaza and the computers that process the data collected. The treadles are vulnerable to harsh New England weather, and the beating they take from heavy traffic and snow plows. The treadles require “significant maintenance and impact customers when lanes have to be closed for repair,” according to Walter Fagerlund of HNTB, senior technical advisor and project manager for both the New Gloucester ORT and system-wide toll replacement projects.
Revamping side tolls
The turnpike’s next generation toll system, said Fagerlund, includes more durable metal loops buried in concrete under the road. That system was deployed at the New Gloucester site and is expected to eventually replace the old treadle technology for the entire length of the highway. So, while the authority waits on plans to overhaul toll collection at its barrier plazas, the agency plans to roll in the new technology at its side tolls, stockpiling the old hardware and using it as replacement parts in an effort to keep the old system going as long as possible.
“We’re in a situation where we’re basically cannibalizing our existing stock of equipment to keep the old system going,” said Mills.
Operating a toll system with the old technology while introducing new technology has been a challenge of its own, according to Fagerlund. He described the steps, including system integration and testing to make sure the two systems work together.
“Maine’s legacy system and the new system [at New Gloucester] had to be designed to speak the same language back to the turnpike’s central systems,” said Fagerlund. He said the turnpike two years ago began the process by swapping out the old system for the new one that included the in-ground loop sensors at a single toll lane at New Gloucester. The new system was tested extensively to ensure full and accurate integration.
Mills noted that the new technology also impacts cash collection. The turnpike is currently testing replacement equipment used in cash toll collection, including touch screen computers for toll collectors.
Mills’ office said that plans are to stretch out the complete system replacement over the next seven years. In all, the upgrade is expected to cost approximately $24 million for equipment and construction to complete, in addition to engineering costs. The end result, said Mills, is a new system designed to be flexible and leave the door open for an eventual shift to AET.
“The environment [of electronic tolling] is shifting so rapidly,” said Mills. “We have decided we are not making any changes that are inconsistent with all-electronic tolling.”
Turnpike officials told Maine Trails there has been no specific board meeting scheduled to discuss York and possibilities for an updated toll structure, but they expect the authority board will look at the issue again within the coming months. And even though Mills cannot yet say where or when Maine will have its next new mainline toll facility, he is unequivocal in his praise for the new technology at New Gloucester and the benefits it has produced for Maine people and businesses. Chief among them are savings for the turnpike’s commercial customers. He said that with 80 percent of the commercial traffic at the plaza using E-ZPass, businesses are seeing substantial savings in their fuel costs and concurrent reductions in harmful emissions.
“Poland Spring has told me it saves them a quarter of a gallon of diesel fuel every time they go through the plaza because they don’t have to slow down. That’s a savings of about a dollar per 18-wheeler,” said Mills. With 4,000 trucks using the New Gloucester toll plaza every day, he estimates, Maine businesses will save $1.4 million on fuel every year.
When the talk turns back to York, Mills admitted to a sense of urgency felt by his board as it looks at a long-term strategy and how to provide the best, most cost-effective service for its customers. Savings like users are experiencing in New Gloucester are as compelling a reason as efficiency or safety to move forward on a new toll facility at York.
“People in York ask us: ‘What’s your hurry? The sky hasn’t fallen and every day brings us closer to all electronic toll collection,’” said Mills. He said they don’t see what the Maine Turnpike is dealing with – “aging electronics and a crusty old plaza that is sinking into the ground” – nor are they recognizing that the delay is costing the people of Maine.
Still, Mills said he has learned a lot during discussions and study of the issue and believes that a mutually acceptable solution is possible in York, “if we can construct a toll plaza that will not require us to take homes. . . and that will have minimal environmental impact.”
FMI: Learn more about E-ZPass and electronic tolling at www.MaineTurnpike.com.