WEST UNITY, Ohio — Joan and Mike Ungashick travel several times each year from their Canton, Ohio home to visit relatives in Chicago, paying the Ohio Turnpike’s cash tolls each time.
The possibility that a pending replacement of the turnpike’s toll-collection system will enable electronic-toll customers to drive through the mainline toll plazas at highway speed, however, has Joan Ungashick thinking it might finally be time to get an E-ZPass tag.
“I like that idea,” she said Wednesday during a rest stop with her husband, Mike, at the turnpike’s westbound Indian Meadow service plaza in eastern Williams County. “It saves lines, it saves time.”
The plan that the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission is developing also calls for toll collection to cease at several interchanges at the turnpike’s eastern and western ends, with the ends of distance-based toll collection moved to just west of the Swanton interchange and to just east of the Niles/Warren interchange.
Local traffic would thus be able to travel the turnpike for free between the Delta, Wauseon, Archbold, and Bryan/Montpelier interchanges, but a stand-alone toll plaza would be established on the main line near the current Westgate in western Williams County. Free travel would similarly be possible between several interchanges in the Youngstown area.
Eliminating tolls for local travelers in rural northwest Ohio mattered little to several longer-distance travelers who paused for lunch Wednesday at the Indian Meadow plaza. But like the Ungashicks, no longer having to pause to pay tolls got their attention.
“If I don’t have to slow down and stop, then fine,” said Mark Bolinger, an Evergreen, Colo. resident who travels to his Pennsylvania hometown several times per year and already has an electronic-toll account.
And Toni Hinerman of Weirton, W.Va. said the proposed change could finally sway her to get a toll tag to use during trips to Kalamazoo to visit her son.
While a 33 percent toll discount for E-ZPass users hasn’t been persuasive enough so far, “the convenience of it” with no need to stop at tollgates could be, she said.
The toll-collection changes were recommended in a study conducted by Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc., in consultation with the turnpike commission to plan for replacement of the existing system, which according to the commission is “nearing the end of its useful life.”
The commission estimates a construction cost of between $189 million and $217 million to modernize the turnpike’s toll collection and update its Customer Service Center, which manages E-ZPass accounts. It expects to save $257 million in operating costs over the following 30 years by eliminating seven of its 31 toll plazas, removing gates from many of the remaining plazas’ lanes, and persuading more travelers to use electronic tolling. Reducing the toll-collector work force is to be accomplished by attrition if possible.
The turnpike commission expects construction to start next year and be finished by 2022.
Open-road tolling would require installation of an enforcement system that has not been necessary under the turnpike’s current toll-collection model, under which all drivers still must pass through tollbooth lanes at their entry and exit points.
Gates rise in E-ZPass users’ lanes once their toll tags are detected, but they still have to slow to below 10 mph. Users also are vulnerable to delay if the system fails to detect their tags or if a driver who doesn’t have a toll tag mistakenly enters an E-ZPass Only lane.
Under the new system, only toll lanes for those paying cash fares would retain gates. Camera systems would record the license plates of all vehicles using E-ZPass lanes, which would then be the basis of enforcement against toll violators using those lanes.
While open-road tolling will allow electronic-toll customers to travel faster across the Ohio Turnpike, those still paying cash will have to pause at four toll plazas — instead of the current two — if they drive the turnpike’s full length westbound, and three times eastbound.
The plan calls for tolls to be collected westbound-only at the Eastgate near the Pennsylvania border. That would complement the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s west-end plaza, where tolls now are collected only eastbound.
Brian Newbacher, a turnpike spokesman, said a legal framework will be needed in Ohio to support enforcement action against drivers who drive through electronic-toll lanes without toll tags and then ignore bills.
In Pennsylvania, which has used open-road tolling on its turnpikes to increasing degrees over the past decade, a state law passed last year provides for toll-scofflaw vehicles’ registrations to be suspended.
To varying degrees, several other toll-road authorities have taken another step that the Ohio Turnpike is not proposing: the complete elimination of toll booths.
Several Pennsylvania toll roads, the Express Toll Road near Toronto, and the entire Massachusetts Turnpike, among others, now use “pay by plate” exclusively for vehicles that lack toll tags. Bills generated by the camera surveillance system are sent to “pay by plate” vehicles, with a sometimes-hefty service fee included.
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