Pros and Cons of the New Open-Road Tolling System

CEE Professor Peter Furth explains that while an open-road tolling system should relieve traffic congestion, it might result in billing problems.

Source: News @ Northeastern

If you’ve trav­eled along the Mass­a­chu­setts Turn­pike recently it’s hard not to notice a series of metal over­head struc­tures strad­dling both direc­tions of the thruway. Come October, those elec­tronic toll gantries will be the only method of fare col­lec­tion for the east-​​west route.

These new tolls mean motorists will no longer have to stop to give their money to a toll col­lector, or slow down for the toll to read their E-​​Z Pass transponder. Instead, motorists will travel at the normal speed.

For those with a transponder, nothing will change. The new struc­tures will read the transponder. For those without a transponder, the system will read the vehicle’s license plate and then send a bill to the address where the car is registered.

Peter Furth, pro­fessor of civil and envi­ron­mental engi­neering and a trans­porta­tion sys­tems expert, said this step toward autonomous toll col­lec­tion not only offers cost sav­ings to the state, but will ulti­mately relieve traffic congestion.

The main reason states have adopted this system has been to save money by not needing toll col­lec­tors, and motorists save time, of course,” Furth noted. “But—as trans­porta­tion econ­o­mists have known for decades—the real ben­efit will come as we start to use this tech­nology for con­ges­tion man­age­ment, adjusting tolls in response to con­ges­tion in order to keep our roads free-​​flowing and keep our cities from being flooded with traffic.”

While open-​​road tolling is not a new inno­va­tion– states such as Texas, Florida, and New Hamp­shire, have imple­mented open-​​road tolling in recent years–Furth said the use of license plate reading tech­nology is fairly new.

Only recently has license plate recog­ni­tion tech­nology become reli­able enough to be cost-​​effective,” Furth explained, pointing to Ontario’s Highway 407, which has been cash­less since 1997 but has required exten­sive human inter­ven­tion to avoid billing errors by the license plate reading system.

Both­er­some billing a drawback

How­ever, billing errors and motorists without transpon­ders failing to pay their bills are the most common cri­tiques of the cash­less system, Furth said. In many cases, the penal­ties for failing to pay a bill are sig­nif­i­cantly more than the fare itself.

A lot of people don’t pay,” Furth said. “And states some­times charge vio­la­tion fees that can be enormous—like a $90 fee for failing to pay a $3 toll—resulting in some dri­vers ending up with thou­sands of dol­lars’ worth of bills. We need a better system to make pay­ment cer­tain without these large penalties.”

Furth added that in the future, he expects that these auto­mated tolls will be installed not just on roads and high­ways where tolls already exist, but also on roads that don’t cur­rently have them as a way to manage traffic.

Nobody likes to pay tolls, of course, but when more people want to use a road than it has capacity for, it’s far more effi­cient to ration this scarce resource with pricing,” he said.

Related Faculty: Peter G. Furth

Related Departments:Civil & Environmental Engineering