COLUMN ONE : Paying as They Go--Faster : Automatic toll-collection systems are appearing on more roads and bridges across the nation. Advocates say they'll save drivers from congestion and pollution.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Across the San Diego-Coronado Bridge, in New York's Lincoln Tunnel and at a growing number of places in between, drivers are whizzing--legally--past bridge and highway toll stations. Millions more motorists across the country will follow before long.

The change isn't coming any too soon: Highways are choking on congestion--and drivers on smog--but new systems of automatic toll-collecting are credited with helping to reduce both.

A number of methods are already in use, and others are being tested or installed that will no longer require motorists to stop to pay cash tolls. Typically, the tolls are automatically deducted from cash accounts previously established by commuters.

Automatic systems are in use, for example, at New Orleans' Crescent City Bridge, Michigan's Grosse Ile Bridge and Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin Bridge, where bar-code labels--placed on cars' side windows--are scanned by lasers.

On a tollway in Dallas, drivers participating in the automated system carry on their windshields a simple electronic tag about the size of a credit card.

In California's Orange County, where three new toll roads will soon be built, the most modern automatic toll-collecting equipment available will be installed. Between 40 and 50 companies are working on the technology and hardware for such systems.

The effort comes at a time when the nation's overburdened roads and bridges are badly in need of improvement and repair to accommodate ever-growing amounts of traffic. With few exceptions, there are no public funds available for new facilities.

As a result, many analysts say, highways must be put on a pay-as-you-drive basis. And toll roads, they add, are the answer. But toll-collecting has never been a speedy process, and the result is clogged traffic on some of the nation's busiest thoroughfares and increased pollution from the crowds of idling cars.

"The increased use of automatic toll-collection systems is inevitable," said Craig Schaffer, director of marketing for Amtech Corp., which has installed systems in places including Dallas and New Orleans. "There are not a whole lot of funds available today for rebuilding the infrastructure of America.

"We have to make do with the facilities that have already been built. The use of electronic toll-collection systems on a road allows us to expand facilities and accommodate the added cars. Thus, it extends the useful life of that facility."

Neal Schuster, executive director of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Assn., said: "We are relying more and more on toll financing. To the degree that tolls become more popular, the popularity of this (automated) technology increases as well."

Use of the new automatic toll-collection systems is necessarily optional--to provide for drivers who use the facilities rarely or occasionally. In Dallas and New Orleans about 25% of all commuters have chosen to participate, and the numbers are growing.

In California, electronic toll payment is being tested on the San Diego-Coronado Bridge, which is used by about 50,000 commuters daily. Once the test has been completed, state officials say, they plan to install similar systems at each of the other nine toll bridges in the state, including the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

Ten Oklahoma turnpikes (six existing and four under construction) are getting automatic toll systems, and tests are planned in Orlando, Fla., and Denver.

There are many reasons for the switch to automatic systems, but alleviating traffic congestion probably leads the list.

According to the Highway Users Federation, an organization of corporations that have an interest in improving highway transportation, traffic delays on the nation's interstate highway system are expected to increase fourfold to fivefold by the end of the decade. In Los Angeles, it added, daily "rush hour" periods already last seven hours, and the average freeway speed is expected to fall from the current 35 m.p.h. to 11 m.p.h. by the year 2010.

The Federal Highway Administration calculates that truck drivers are often stuck in traffic for 20% of their working day. Besides resulting in unreliable deliveries and inefficient businesses, congestion also hurts morale because workers are under stress even before they get to work. The Highway Users Federation calculates that traffic delays on freeways and expressways cost between $4.2 billion and $7.6 billion a year.

Paying tolls the old-fashioned way adds to the problem. It is estimated that it takes an average of 12 seconds to stop and pay a toll to a human collector, five seconds to throw exact change into a toll-collection machine, and less than one second for a car to pass through an automatic toll-collection facility.

Safety is considered to be just about as important as relieving congestion. Accidents frequently occur when drivers fumble in their pockets for change to pay tolls.

"Any time you remove the necessity for stopping and starting, you lessen the potential for an accident," said Mark Norman, director of policy development for the Highway Users Federation. "When you change speeds on a highway, you create the hazard of a rear-end collision or a chain-reaction accident. That's why freeways have so much better safety records than do toll roads."

Another major benefit from automatic toll collection, is that it is expected to help improve air quality. With fewer vehicles backing up at toll stations, fewer pollutants will be emitted. Air pollution was a major consideration in the creation of an automatic collection system for a bus lane in New York's Lincoln Tunnel; similar systems for the auto lanes are planned.

Cost is also an important consideration, and automatic systems eliminate many human toll collectors--along with their salaries and benefits.

Michael I. Keller is an executive of Time Domain Systems, a Huntsville, Ala., company that is developing hardware that automatically collects tolls by placing a cigarette pack-sized piece of radio equipment in a car to signal the toll plaza that the driver has passed.

He said automatic toll collection will significantly reduce the overhead costs of toll-road authorities. Such costs now exceed $120,000 a year per lane, he said, but would be reduced to about $10,000 per lane if an automatic system is installed.

A system soon to go into operation in Virginia, near Washington, D.C., shows how automation can virtually triple the number of cars going through a toll lane.

The Dulles Access Toll Road, a 13-mile stretch in northern Virginia that connects two interstate highways and ends near Washington Dulles International Airport, was opened six years ago and already is being used by about three times the number of cars that had been anticipated when it opened. About 70,000 vehicles pass through at least one of the road's 14 toll stations on average days.

A third lane in each direction is under construction to boost the highway's capacity by 50%. Lanes attended by toll collectors--who actually only make change that motorists then throw into collection machines--accommodate 700 vehicles per hour. Unattended lanes, for drivers who already have change, accommodate 800 motorists per hour.

There are frequent delays on the road, but the automatic machines should alleviate that problem because they will allow between 2,100 and 2,400 cars per hour to move through each lane.

The automatic system, which will go into operation in about a year, will have underground antennas. A transponder will be attached to the bottom of each participating car. The transponder will automatically signal a computer that the car has passed, and the toll will automatically be deducted from the commuter's account.

To achieve the capacity the road's administrators say it needs, an additional 100 toll collection points would have been needed along its length. Each point would have cost $300,000, for a total of $30 million.

The installation costs for the planned automatic vehicle identification system will be only about $10 million, according to Edward DeLozier, manager of toll facilities of the Dulles toll road. Automatic toll collection also makes the auditing and handling of mountains of cash less cumbersome, he noted, and there is less likelihood of toll collectors getting sticky fingers.

The agencies in charge of building the Orange County tollways are required to use automatic toll-collection systems, according to Ronald L. Hartje, an associate of the Irvine consulting engineering firm of Howard Needles Tammen & Bergendoff. The firm is a member of the consortium managing the design of the tollways. The enabling legislation for the project dictated the use of "the latest state-of-the-art electronic toll-collection systems," in an effort to avoid toll plaza congestion.

"Californians are used to freeways," Hartje said, "and they want their tollways to be safe, efficient and congestion-free." The exact type of system to be used on the three Orange County tollways has yet to be chosen since, as spokeswoman Lisa Boudilier put it: "The technology is moving too quickly." She said, however, that cars will be able to be tallied while passing the automatic collection system at 70 m.p.h.

At the Crescent City Bridge, which crosses the Mississippi River at New Orleans, the system went into operation last year and is already considered a great success. At nine of the bridge's toll-collection lanes, cash is accepted, but three are dedicated to automatic toll collection.

Each automatic toll booth has a computer that interacts with a device the size of a credit card on the windshield of the vehicle. Instead of slowing down to pay the toll, drivers go through at an average speed of 25 m.p.h.

According to Gulf Systems Inc., which developed some of the technology, 25% of the bridge's regular commuters use the electronic toll system, and the number is rising 2% a month.

Crescent City Bridge commuters pay a deposit of $25 for the windshield device and $40 worth of tolls in advance. When they pass the toll station, the fee is automatically deducted from their accounts. When the accounts fall below $10, the commuters either stop at an office at the bridge to put in more money or, if they choose, their Visa or MasterCard credit cards are automatically charged with another $40.

As an incentive, those who join the program get a toll reduction to 70 cents from the $1 that others pay.

Dallas North Tollway is a 17-mile stretch connecting the central northern suburbs with downtown Dallas. And there, rather than getting an incentive, commuters pay a premium for the convenience of not stopping at a toll booth.

They pay $2 a month to use the tollway's automatic system and an extra 5 cents on each toll. Despite the cost, more than 25,000 people are participating.

Since Dallas was not allowed by its bond entitlement to spend money on an automatic toll-collection system, Amtech became the city's partner and installed the system at no cost. In return, Amtech receives the $2-a-month fees and the extra nickel on the toll.

At the moment, such systems are designed to be used by commuters who travel the same routes back and forth every day. But highway planners hope one day to connect systems to cover large parts of the country.

There is a goal, for example, of ultimately hooking up the New York State Thruway, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey and the New Jersey Turnpike--more than 1,000 miles of road.

What about those who might try to defeat automatic systems by sneaking through without paying toll? The authorities are prepared.

There are cameras available that can take pictures of culprits' license plates. The authorities will then send out tickets, and the drivers will be fined and denied the right to re-register their cars until the fines are paid.

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