Forget the toll booths you've seen on highways back East. Technological advances make it transparently efficient to collect tolls on multiple freeways, as proposed in a report (1.1 MB PDF) commissioned by King County Executive Ron Sims. To keep track of who uses which roadway when, some 415 on-ramps and off-ramps throughout metropolitan Puget Sound would be equipped with short-range communications equipment. Some devices would read transponders placed on the windshields of most vehicles, while cameras that incorporate license-plate recognition technology would identify other vehicles – what the report calls "casual users" – that would include out-of-state drivers passing through as well as scofflaws attempting to avoid the toll. The plan's hardware systems would include a "back office" where computers would continuously compile all of this data, debit fees from motorist accounts, mail out bills to casual users, and provide drivers with the necessary on-board technologies. Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington, and a team of students fine-tuned the plan, taking into consideration local geography and politics. The report Hallenbeck co-authored with Booz Allen Hamilton consultant Jack Opiola estimates that the total cost to implement the tolling system is $65 million for highway-borne equipment and the computer nerve center. Electronic tags and "smart cards" for vehicles and drivers add another $23 million. Once the system is in place, total annual operating costs would be approximately $148 million, or roughly 9 percent to 10 percent of operating revenue. The report assumes 80 percent of transportation improvement fees (TIFs) would be collected from electronic tags and 20 percent would come from license-plate recognition. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) already is developing pilot congestion projects called "hot lanes." Scheduled to open on state Highway 167 in a year, hot lanes will permit drivers traveling between Auburn and Renton to pay for the privilege of pulling into a fast-moving lane of traffic to escape bumper-to-bumper congestion. Fees might cost between $1.50 and $2 during peak hours. WSDOT will remake existing high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes into hot lanes. Drivers will purchase $30 passes, which they can also use to pay tolls on the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Toll booths won't be needed because, in essence, the roadway technology makes each vehicle its own private toll booth. WSDOT is contemplating a similar hot lane experiment on Interstate 405. And the state and King County are hoping to be awarded a federal grant to try electronically collected tolls on state Highway 520 between Seattle and Redmond.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!