by Lowman S. Henry | June 08, 2004

Electronic toll collection, truck tollways could ease traffic congestion

Nearing the end of a recent trip from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh I approached the toll booths at the Monroeville Exit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike only to be greeted by a jam up of vehicles waiting to pay their toll. But wait; there was one toll booth with no line – the E-Z Pass lane. Since I have one of those handy little white E-Z Pass transponders I sailed right past the line of stopped vehicles and was on my way to the Steel City.

The American Psychiatric Association should add E-Z Pass to its list of approved therapy for self-esteem building. Nothing makes you feel more superior that zipping by a line of stopped vehicles at the toll booth after a long trip on America’s first superhighway. Even headed into New York City, going into the Lincoln Tunnel, you can speed by travel-hardened veteran commuters by going into the E-Z Pass lane.

E-Z Pass is rapidly developing into a nationwide toll collection system. From its humble beginnings on the New York State Thruway, it is now in use in 12 states, including Pennsylvania’s turnpike. In addition to New York, you can travel through New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware and West Virginia on your E-Z Pass. Another five states, including Illinois, Indiana, Maine, New Hampshire, and Virginia are about ready to join the system.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has been a leader in developing E-Z Pass technology. The Turnpike is now set to speed up the system even more by activating E-Z Pass lanes that allow drivers to pass through at 55 miles per hour instead of the current five miles per hour needed for the transponders to register.

Such applications of technology to toll collection are vitally necessary as traffic has been increasing at a much more rapid rate than we’ve been building new roads. According to the Reason Public Policy Institute (RPPI), between 1980 and 2000 the number of vehicle miles traveled in the United States increased by 80%. During that same 20-year period, the number of new lane miles of highway constructed increased by only 4%. It is no wonder traffic congestion is a growing problem.

In a recent study entitled Corridors for Truck Tollways: Suggested Locations for Pilot Projects, Robert W. Poole, Jr. and Peter Samuel of the RPPI advocated the construction of more miles of tolled highways. The twist is the tolled highways would be built along existing interstate routes and reserved for trucks only. The new lanes would be built to handle the weight of trucks, having the dual benefit of diverting truck traffic from passenger car lanes and lessening wear and tear on the older roadways.

Pennsylvania’s nickname is the Keystone State, and that title is especially appropriate when it comes to highway transportation. Our state literally sits at the crossroads of north/south and east/west traffic, making us a prime location for implementing the truck tollway concept. In fact, the RPPI study identifies I-90 in northwestern Pennsylvania, I-81 through central Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania Turnpike on its list of top ten highways where the truck only toll lanes should be built.

The recent rapid escalation of gasoline prices will likely doom any effort to raise fuel taxes, which already add considerable cost. Such taxes have traditionally been a source of highway construction funds, so states need an alternative means of paying for the construction of new lane miles. Having the cost paid for by the user, through tolled truckways would be a good solution.

Trucks currently deliver 90% of the value of U.S. freight each year. The construction of new truck-only toll lanes, coupled with the nationwide implementation of E-Z Pass technology for both truck and passenger lanes would go a long way to easing the growing congestion on America’s highways.

On the other hand, the longer it takes for that to happen the longer those of us with the little white E-Z Pass transponders can wave as we pass those technology-challenged drivers waiting to pay their tolls.