ATLANTIC CITY - Casey and Kim Marie Kielbasa zipped through toll booth after toll booth while making a two-day trip from their home in suburban Buffalo, N.Y., through Pennsylvania and ending in Atlantic City. "I'd say we went through about 10 plazas," Kim Marie Kielbasa recalled. "I loved it because we didn't have to stop and wait to pay the toll."
The Kielbasas breezed through the plazas using E-ZPass, the electronic toll-collection system that began 20 years ago and has revolutionized highway travel throughout the East and beyond. Kim Marie Kielbasa estimated she and her husband cut at least an hour off their travel time during their two-day trip because of E-ZPass. For motorists using the E-ZPass system, there is no more fumbling for loose coins, stopping at the plazas and forking over money to a human toll collector.
"It's greatly simplified travel for our customers," said P.J. Wilkins, executive director of the E-ZPass Interagency Group. "It's helped with reducing congestion tremendously. Think of 20 years ago, when you were approaching toll booths, wasting time and burning fuel."
E-ZPass debuted Aug. 3, 1993, at the Spring Valley toll plaza on the New York State Thruway. The thruway was the lone highway to have it until the Atlantic City Expressway and Delaware Turnpike on Interstate 95 both came online in 1998. The Garden State Parkway implemented E-ZPass in 1999, and the New Jersey Turnpike in 2000 completed the conversion to electronic fare collection on New Jersey's major toll roads.
Today, motorists can drive as far north as Maine, as far south as North Carolina and as far west as Illinois using E-ZPass.
Wilkins noted that Congress has set an ambitious timetable for having a national electronic toll-collection system in place by mid-2016 for federal highways. E-ZPass, one of the technology brands for electronic tolls, hopes to lead the way in the push across country.
"Out to California, out to Washington," Wilkins said, envisioning the routes ahead to create a national system. "Ideally, that would be the goal. We're working very hard toward that effort."
Niagara Falls and the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority, both in upstate New York, will join the E-ZPass system in 2014 as the newest members, Wilkins said. Kentucky and Indiana are expected to join in late 2015 or early 2016 as part of the Ohio River Bridges Project linking both states.
E-ZPass officials are also talking to Florida, Texas, Georgia, Utah and other states that have electronic tolls "to find a common way to do business," Wilkins said.
Currently, 25 transportation groups and 15 states are part of the E-ZPass system. Overall, there are 16 million accounts and 25.5 million vehicles using E-ZPass. More than $6.6 billion in annual toll revenue is collected through the E-ZPass system.
"Slowly but surely we are going to electronic tolling," Wilkins said. "It clearly has reduced manned toll booths. It is a trend that is continuing now."
Wilkins said a high-speed E-ZPass lane can handle about 2,000 transactions per hour, compared with about 350 for a human toll collector.
About 1,000 toll collectors once worked on the parkway and turnpike. That number has fallen to 200 on the turnpike and 136 on the parkway, according to the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, the agency that operates both roads.
The Turnpike Authority has decided to accept bids to privatize toll collection on both roads in hopes of saving millions of dollars in operating costs. In August, the South Jersey Transportation Authority awarded a $3.7 million contract to a private company to run the expressway's manual toll-collection system through November 2014. The move is expected to save the expressway about $7.5 million because it has been relieved of the cost of salaries and benefits for toll collectors.
Debate continues about possibly having a completely electronic toll system on the expressway and other roads. In the meantime, the human toll collectors continue to survive because some motorists embrace the old-fashioned system of manually paying their fares. But not Kim Marie Kielbasa.
"I don't like the idea that human toll takers are losing their jobs. But I love not having to sit there and wait to pay the tolls. It's also nice because you get toll discounts for using E-ZPass on some highways," Kielbasa said during an interview at the Atlantic City Visitors Center on the expressway.
E-ZPass use pushed above 70 percent on the expressway in October, setting a record, said Sharon Gordon, deputy executive director of the SJTA.
"It's saving time, and it's saving fuel," Gordon said. "We've had nothing but raves. Most times, the only complaints we get are from E-ZPass customers about the cash-paying customers not letting them get into the E-ZPass lanes and holding them up."
E-ZPass use is also heavy on the turnpike and parkway. Donna Manuelli, chief financial officer of the Turnpike Authority, said nearly 81 percent of turnpike traffic and about 78 percent of parkway traffic use E-ZPass. At peak travel periods, E-ZPass use climbs above 90 percent, she said.
"It's a low-cost alternative compared to manual toll collection. It's just a win for everybody," Manuelli said.
E-ZPass technology remains basically the same as it was 20 years ago. It is relatively simple: A small transponder - the electronic "tag" affixed to the inside of a windshield - is read by an antenna as the vehicle zips through the E-ZPass lanes. The motorist's E-ZPass account is scanned and electronically debited for the toll.
Earlier on, E-ZPass was hurt by glitches that resulted in some motorists getting hit with improper summonses for not paying tolls. Wilkins stopped short of calling E-ZPass completely fault-free these days but said most of the flaws are long gone. With so many safeguards built into the system now, it would take a series of failures for motorists to be falsely accused of not paying their tolls, he said.
"It is extremely fast. It is extremely accurate," he said.
Most of the time, E-ZPass toll violations are the result of motorists having a dead battery in their transponder, not keeping their accounts or credit cards up to date, or simply not having enough money in their accounts to pay the fare, Wilkins said.
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