ONTARIO is opening its first toll road since the 19th century, when private landowners were allowed to charge a fee to people crossing muddy tracks on their property. This time, computers will be collecting the tolls automatically.
The electronic highway - this one for cars and trucks, not information - will be operated by a private company and financed almost entirely with private funds. All of this from a so-called socialist government in Ontario.
Already partially built, Highway 407 travels east-west just above the boundary of Metropolitan Toronto. The road is 43 miles long and is designed to take pressure from the 12-lane Highway 401, especially the 20 mile stretch that runs through the middle of Toronto. Every rush hour, and usually all day during the week, the 12 lanes are clogged.
``Highway 401 handles about a million trips a day,'' says David Guscott, deputy minister of transportation with the Ontario government. ``It is the busiest freeway in North America.''
Whither the road
The highway will connect new communities north of Toronto, running from Markham - Canada's silicon valley with the highest per capita income in the country - to Mississauga, a city of half a million people just west of Toronto.
The government has spent $300 million (Canadian; US$217 million) on the highway, but decided to seek $1 billion in private funding when it could not afford to build the road fast enough.
``At the rate we were going, it would have taken 20 years,'' Mr. Guscott says. ``Now it'll be open by 1998, maybe sooner.''
This is the first toll road in the world that will not have any toll booths, according to the government.
``Because we wanted the traffic to move, we didn't want any slowdowns at toll booths,'' Guscott says. ``The system will be accessible to everybody, but there will be a price break for people who use electronic transponders.''
Two ways to collect tolls
Two systems for toll collection will be used on the new highway:
* Each time a car drives on the highway, its license plate will be photographed. (There already exists an automatic system used by the police to detect speeding cars with radar and photograph their license plates as they pass.)
At the end of the month, a bill will be sent to the owner and if it is not paid, the government will not renew the owner's license plate at the end of the year.
* The other method of payment is to use an electronic transponder placed on the outside of the vehicle or attached to the back of the rearview mirror.
The transponder, about 3 inches square and 1 inch thick, will transmit to sensors placed at each entrance and exit to the highway, automatically adjusting the monthly bill for using the toll road. The cost is expected to be approximately 11 cents (Canadian) for every mile traveled.
``If the 401 was blocked, I'd use it [the toll road] in a flash,'' says John Angus, who commutes from Toronto to Mississauga every day. He says he finds the idea of electronic toll collection intriguing. ``I'd certainly use it just to see how that works.''
Trucks using the road will be charged double the rate for passenger cars.
Mark IV Industries Ltd. of Mississauga is one of the companies bidding on the toll-collection technology. The company has already been specified as a suitable possible contractor for similar collection systems that might be used on seven toll road systems in New York State, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
But those authorities want to combine electronic toll-taking with the old system of toll booths and cash in the basket.
The method for collecting the cash proposed by Mark IV and its partners would also be unusual. The tab for using the road would come as part of the telephone bill from Bell Canada, which plans to get into the toll-collection business.
``There's a prepayment option, but we can adjust for usage after the fact,'' says Paul Manuel, vice president of Mark IV's Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems division.
``With this system there are only customers, not violators,'' he adds.
On April 8, Canadian Highways International Corporation, a consortium of 11 companies, was given approval to build the new highway. The contract for installation of the electronic toll-collection system will probably be awarded later this year.