Ohio fills in gap to proposed nationwide toll network

To view a map that shows the multi-state network, view the original article here.

E-ZPass expansion connects Midwest and East Coast

September 16, 2009

The USA moves one step closer to a nationwide highway tolling system next month when the Ohio Turnpike joins a network covering the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

The move on Oct. 1 will enable drivers equipped with E-ZPass transponders to travel from Maine to southern Virginia and west beyond Chicago and pay tolls electronically without stopping at toll booths. It’s another sign of the spread of electronic tolling as a convenience for drivers and an increasingly common way to finance roads.

Ohio’s decision to join E-ZPass creates an uninterrupted 14-state toll system, the nation’s largest. “We finally filled the hole in the donut,” says George Distel, executive director of the Ohio Turnpike Commission. “You can travel from Chicago to the East Coast. … We will all be linked with the same technology.”

Ohio is late to the game because E-ZPass is more for customer convenience than congestion relief and because of the state’s $50 million cost, Distel says.

When E-ZPass becomes available on 241 miles of toll road across northern Ohio, the system will be used by 25 tolling agencies and 18.6 million vehicles, according to the E-ZPass Interagency Group.

Gas tax collections — long a chief way to maintain roads and build new ones — have lagged in the recession and because of cars that guzzle less gas. As road construction costs rise and traffic congestion mounts, tolling — especially the electronic version — has emerged in many states as a way to fill the gap.

Twenty states, mostly in the West, currently have no toll roads or bridges.

A nationwide electronic system serving all toll roads, tunnels and bridges could be a reality within 10 years, says Neil Gray, director of government affairs for the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, which represents tolling agencies.

Existing technology makes it possible, but a major obstacle is forging agreements among tolling agencies to make sure toll revenue is distributed properly across state borders, Gray says.

More than 95% of the nation’s tolling agencies are served by E-ZPass or TransCore, which supplies technology for electronic tolling systems in Georgia, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Washington, says TransCore spokeswoman Barbara Catlin.

Technology exists to provide compatibility between TransCore systems such as TxTag in Texas and SunPass in Florida and E-ZPass, Catlin says. But the systems are unable to process each other’s transactions because there are no agreements yet among tolling agencies.

North Carolina, which broke ground last month on its first modern toll road — the 18.8-mile Triangle Expressway in the Raleigh-Durham area — hasn’t decided whether to use E-ZPass, TransCore or something else, says Reid Simons, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Turnpike Authority. “We are kind of stuck in the middle,” she says.

The Ohio Turnpike, which carries about 150,000 vehicles daily, is adding an incentive to encourage drivers of passenger vehicles to use E-ZPass. Drivers won’t see any rate hikes if they use E-ZPass, Distel says. But rates for drivers who pay cash will jump 40%.