The N.C. Turnpike Authority on Tuesday began selling electronic gadgets that will let drivers sail through the state's first automated tolls without slowing down to aim coins into a bucket.
The new toll road, which opens in December, will not be staffed by toll collectors. Instead, digital eyes will read bar codes on windshield-mounted electronic devices - called "transponders" - and deduct the toll from the driver's credit card account.
Drivers without transponders will be sent a bill at home, based on an electronic image taken of their license plate as they drive through the virtual toll. But they will pay more. Drivers who buy transponders will get a 35 percent discount on the toll.
The turnpike authority's new service center in Morrisville sold more than 200 transponders on its first day. The state is selling a $5 version for use on North Carolina's planned toll roads and a $20 device for use in multiple states.
Among the first customers were Richard and Carol Hill of Cary, who opted for the $20 model. The Hills are Northern transplants who drive every year to Florida, Pennsylvania and upstate New York to visit friends and family.
They currently use New York state's E-ZPass, but will cancel that account when their North Carolina-issued transponder is integrated into the nation's automated turnpike network, including Florida's SunPass. That integration should happen next year.
"You can see the backups at the toll booths snaking out of tunnels," Richard Hill said. "It could save you like an hour on the trip."
This state's automated toll road system is just getting started, with the first 3.4-mile section along the Durham Freeway, between Hopson Road and Interstate 540, set to open in mid-December and scheduled to begin charging tolls on Jan. 3.
The fee will be 50 cents for drivers with transponders and 77 cents for those without.
The $1 billion toll road, called the Triangle Expressway, will be extended 18.8 miles on the southwestern portion of N.C. 540 late next year.
The fee for the entire toll road will be nearly $3 for drivers with transponders and about $4 for drivers without the devices.
Transponder owners will be billed automatically. But those without the devices will have to pay electronically or by mail.
Toll road drivers who don't pay will not be able to renew their automobile registrations, officials said.
Delinquent drivers will be notified three times before their registrations are frozen.
The state is also developing automated toll roads in the Outer Banks, around Charlotte and possibly along Interstate 95.
Officials said the tolls are the best way to make up a shortfall in highway funds from the state's gasoline tax.
"It was either no road for 20 years and worsening congestion, or a toll road this year," said Eugene Conti Jr., secretary of the N.C. Department of Transportation.