Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Bridge officials mull easy-pass toll system

By LAURA FOSMIRE
Capital News Service

LANSING – Michigan is contemplating adding its three major toll bridges to an easy-pass system similar to the toll-collection method used throughout the Northeastern United States and parts of the Midwest, but many obstacles stand in the way.

The system would allow vehicles with a permit on their windshields to pass the toll booths without stopping.

The Mackinac Bridge linking the Upper and Lower peninsulas, the International Bridge between Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. and Sault Ste. Marie, Canada, and the Blue Water Bridge between Port Huron and Sarnia, Ontario, currently use an electronic toll system similar to debit cards.

The Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, and the Detroit-Windsor tunnel are privately owned and not part of the state system.

Chuck Chrapko, president of Blue Water Bridge Canada, said “we have our own debit card system in-house,” said Chuck Chrapko, president of Blue Water Bridge Canada.

The debit card uses radio frequency identification, which is a “tap-and-go kind of thing” that emits a signal readable by another device on-site. Unlike easy-pass systems, however, it still requires vehicle to stop to process the transaction.

Chrapko said Blue Water Bridge Canada is looking into other electronic options to make things easier on employees and equipment.

“Right now our toll collectors have to reach out a window to either grab cash or our in-house debit card,” he said. “So they reach up to the cab of the truck, bring the card down, swipe it and return it to the driver. It causes wear-and-tear on the employees’ shoulders.”

Customers can also pay with coins and tokens tossed into a toll basket.

“It involves a lot of hardware to take that change and process the transaction,” Chrapko said. “If you can remove the need for tokens with an electronic system, then you’ve got less hardware to worry about breaking down.”

Mike Johnston, tolling manager for the International Bridge, said its automated toll lanes increase efficiency.

“What we’ve done over the past couple of years is to automate our toll lanes,” he said. “Those lanes are for our commuter base, which is approximately 70 percent of our total travelers.”

Johnston explained that the system uses electronic cards so drivers don’t need to wait for a toll collector.

The Mackinac Bridge has had a form of electronic tolling since 2002, said Bob Sweeney, executive secretary of the Mackinac Bridge Authority.

Drivers can use cards with a computer chip that’s recognized by an electronic reader and deducts the toll from a pre-paid account, he said.

Sweeney said that the cards enjoy great success among commuters.

“For the past three months, January through March, we’ve had 102,000 trips across the bridge using the proximity readers,” he said. “Those are mostly people commuting on a daily basis.”

Johnston of the International Bridge said drivers may not readily accept an easy-pass system out of concern that further automation will put toll collectors out of a job.

“The fact is, we have the same number of staff as we did prior to the automated lanes,” he said. “It’s proven to be a positive step, though, for us here. You just can’t eliminate the human factor from this environment.”

Chrapko of Blue Water Bridge Canada agreed.

“Electronic tolling is just an enhancement from the customer experience standpoint,” he said. “It’s been well-documented that in the next 10 to 15 years, the business of toll collection will be all electronic. People retire, or we’ll find them other jobs here that they can migrate to.”

The Mackinac Bridge’s Sweeney said that all three bridge authorities meet regularly together to discuss a common tolling system.

Kirk Steudle, director of the Department of Transportation (MDOT), said bridge officials are concerned about maintaining traffic flow.

“Part of the issue with electronic tolling is it allows you to go free-flow,” he said.

But vehicles crossing the International and Blue Water bridges must stop at the U.S.-Canadian border, he said.

“At the Mackinac Bridge, we want them to stop because we need to see what’s on their truck and how much it weighs,” Steudle said.

Sweeney said that the brief stop at the bridge also gives tourists a chance to ask questions about the U.P.

“Our toll collectors provide a lot of information,” he said. “It’s more of a customer convenience. We found that since we’re in a tourist area that a lot of our customers pull up and like quick general information about finding a place to eat and a place to stay.”

Sweeney said truck weight limits are monitored carefully by two sensors near the bridge and by the State Police.

“If a truck bumps one of the scales, we’ll hold them until someone can come and inspect. It happens very infrequently because the drivers crossing the bridge know that they have a very good chance of being inspected,” he said.

Sweeney predicted that electronic tolling will take over entirely within a couple of decades, but added no dramatic changes are expected, based on current traffic patterns.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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