RALEIGH — State turnpike officials faced one of those VHS-or-Betamax technology dilemmas when they shopped for car-mounted gadgets that drivers will use to pay electronic tolls on North Carolina toll roads.
They could buy E-ZPass transponders, used for years on northeastern toll roads from Virginia to Maine. That would please Illinois transplants and New England truckers who don't want to carry a second device - and a second debit account - just to drive on the Triangle Expressway and other planned Tar Heel turnpikes.
Or they could follow Texas, Florida and other southern states by adopting a newer, cheaper generation of credit card-size transponders. These wireless radio devices, called sticker tags, don't work on toll roads in E-ZPass states.
Either way, North Carolina turnpike officials risked alienating some of their first customers in what will become a multimillion-dollar business for this state.
So they decided to have it both ways.
The N.C. Turnpike Authority signed a $5.9 million technology contract this week that favors the southern flavor of electronic toll transponders - and also works with the northern variety. North Carolina will be the first state to collect electronic toll payments with transponders and debit accounts from any of the 26 states that use them now.
"That interoperability is the key to our customers being able to drive up and use a road in New Jersey, or drive down to Florida or Texas," said J.J. Eden, the turnpike authority's chief operating officer.
If you have an E-ZPass from New Jersey or a SunPass from Florida, you're fully equipped now to travel on the 18.8-mile Triangle Expressway from Research Triangle Park to Holly Springs. North Carolina's first modern toll road, now under construction, will open to traffic through RTP in 2011 and through western Wake County in 2012.
For those who don't have electronic toll accounts in other states, North Carolina hopes to issue 350,000 wireless radio transponders to its paying customers during the first five years after traffic starts moving. The turnpike authority will buy the transponders, and the road-mounted sensors that will read them, from Dallas-based TransCore, a unit of Roper Industries Inc.
Customers who use transponders will qualify for the lowest toll rate, expected to be about 14.5 cents a mile. The tolls for each TriEx trip will be debited from their accounts.
Other drivers will be billed at higher rates, about 22 cents a mile, based on photos of their license plates. Exact toll rates have not been announced.
North Carolina is the first state to build a toll road without tollbooths to collect cash payments. Older turnpike agencies now are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to rip out tollbooths in Florida, Texas, New York and other states. Electronic collection is cheaper - and, because it does not require drivers to stop, more popular.
Ernie Wilkes of Raleigh started using an E-ZPass a few years ago on long drives to visit his daughter in Connecticut, so he wouldn't have to slow down to pitch quarters into toll collection baskets.
"If you've driven from Raleigh to New York, you know the amount of tolls you go through," said Wilkes, 62. "The E-ZPass saves an hour on the whole trip, because you go through the express lanes they've opened up in the last year and a half."
N.C. Turnpike Authority customers will have their choice of two transponders. The wafer thin sticker tags will work here and on toll roads in southern states. A larger dual-technology device, called eZGo Anywhere, also will work in E-ZPass territory.
Eden figures that rental car companies, trucking firms and other businesses with fleets of vehicles will like the option to use one account and one gadget for all toll roads across the United States.
Brendan Byrnes, spokesman for the Charlotte-based Carolinas AAA motor club, says the dual-technology transponder will appeal to other cross-country travelers, too.
"The ability to move seamlessly without having two different devices is going to be key for the mobility of many transplanted North Carolinians," Byrnes said. "It doesn't make sense to have one that doesn't work everywhere."
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