COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Ohio Turnpike is seeking new legal authority to charge free load drivers as it prepares to institute non-stop electronic toll lanes as part of a modernization plan that , he hopes, will speed up traffic across the state.
Senate Bill 162 would allow the toll highway to issue first and second notice bills to drivers using the planned “open roads” barrier-free lanes without the EZPass electronic radio transponder used to automatically pay tolls electronic. Toll highway officials plan to open the new lanes, some of which could be used by high-speed drivers, instead of stopping at the gates as they do now, starting in 2023.
The proposed law change, which unanimously approved the Senate in June and is now before the House for consideration, would put in place an appeal process whereby drivers could first go to toll booths in Berea, and then to the Cuyahoga County Common Plea Court, to challenge having to pay.
If the change in law is approved, highway officials would identify non-paying drivers using cameras that would take a photo of the vehicle’s license plate and use it to send them an invoice. A list of drivers with unpaid tolls would be provided to the Ohio BMV, which would then block registration renewals until they are paid. The gated lanes would work alongside traditional lanes closed with human toll workers, although Turnpike officials say the long-term plan is to fully automate the toll-taking process.
Officials said the changes are needed as the toll highway prepares for its modernization plan, which has been in the works for years. The idea is for the road to be faster, allowing vehicles to cross the state without ever stopping, and more convenient for customers, highway officials said.
“This legislation will protect the ability of the Commission to remain fiscally sound, by ensuring that it has the ability to collect tolls, and prevent customers from abusing the new modernized system which has so far been four years in the making”, Ferzan Ahmed, the head of the toll highway administrator, told state lawmakers during a committee hearing in June.
With barrier-free lanes, the number of toll booths on the toll motorway would be reduced from 31 to 24 and entry barriers would be removed. The high-speed gateless lanes would be in place for the 50 miles west of the toll highway, ending west of Toledo, and then for the 30 miles east, between the Streetsboro area and the Pennsylvania border. . The middle section of the highway would have lanes that are barrier-free, but on which drivers will have to slow down to 10 miles per hour.
Ultimately, the toll highway aims to establish barrier-free lanes at highway speeds for the entire 241 mile toll road. Part of the reason they don’t initially is because they can adapt economically, as they expect not to be able to collect all the tolls from the people who use the lanes without paying.
Tom Blazer, president and CEO of the Ohio Trucking Association, said the trucking industry can’t wait to see electronic tolls. He said the roads were busier than ever, even with some of the hiccups associated with the coronavirus pandemic.
“Anything we can do to improve the efficiency of our industry is something we support,” he said.
Turnpike officials say the changes will cost up to $ 232 million, while saving $ 257 million in operating costs over 30 years, due to downsizing and phasing out employees. The plan is for the toll highway to eventually adopt a fully electronic toll, but for the immediate future toll highway officials say any reduction in the toll highway’s 274 human toll chargers will come through attrition. or transfers, not through layoffs.
Among those supporting SB162 are the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments, and the Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber. Teamsters Local 436, which represents toll plaza workers, did not publicly weigh in on the bill during testimony in June. Dennis Kashi, union president and chief commercial officer, declined to comment for this story.
The new system is under construction and, assuming the change in law is passed, is expected to be open to drivers in spring 2023, according to Ahmed.
Adam Greenslade, a lobbyist for the toll highway, said the law is designed to keep in mind the restrictions lawmakers have placed on red light cameras after years of battles with the local towns that used them to increase their income and discourage speeding.
“They are not violators in the sense that they put on a red light or break a speed limit, we are just using the video app to collect the toll,” said Greenslade.
Pennsylvania adapted all electronic tolls last year, initially during the coronavirus pandemic and now on a permanent basis. Ohio is following in his footsteps, although it has no immediate plans to go all-electronic.
“We are responding to the wishes of our customers,” said Greenslade. “All the other states are ahead of us on electronic tolls. As our surveys have shown, this has certainly been important to our customers.
The Ohio Turnpike Commission’s modernization plan calls for the collection of tolls using electronic options, in cash and on credit.