'Smart' Tolls Save Time, Boost Big Brother's Reach

Let's say you live in a New Jersey suburb. It's 2 p.m. on a Saturday, and you decide to zip into Brooklyn to visit a friend. You tell her you'll be there within the hour.

You're fooling yourself.

From the Garden State Parkway to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, the traffic makes the 20-mile trip take 90 minutes. The biggest bottlenecks will be at the four sets of toll booths - which will take $8.90 out of your pocket.

Now, imagine the same trip, but this time with a Buck Rogers-type "transponder" card affixed to your windshield. The computer chip in the card contains driver's license and registration details, as well as account information that allows you to drive right through toll plazas - without stopping - as a computer reads your card and debits the toll.

Once in Brooklyn, you slip the card into a machine at a parking lot to pay for parking.

Well, in New York - the city that invented gridlock - the future is now. One third of the city's tolls are paid electronically. And 3,000 drivers per day are signing up for the futuristic "E-Z Pass" system.

In fact, New York is just one of 13 states that's begun electronic toll collection. In the next five to 10 years, toll baskets as we know them (along with the human toll collector) are set to become relics of a bygone age - replaced, of course, by technology.

"It's the biggest thing in toll roads since toll roads were established in the 1940s," says Joseph Miele, chair of the Committee for a Smart New Jersey, which is promoting electronic tolls and other highway technologies. "You're not going to get rid of that traffic. The best thing you can do is use the best methods available to move that traffic better."

Electronic toll collection is slowly reinventing an industry that has changed little since its inception. In states eager to retain the companies that sustain their economy, electronic tolls have become a key tool in improving the quality of life by making it easier for people to drive to and fro.

New Jersey's three toll roads are set to join the trend. Maryland and Michigan are ready to follow in the next year or two.

The E-Z Pass system that's been put on most New York City bridges and tunnels in the past year has eliminated 15-minute waits at some bridges. Erasing the need to fish for change and sit in a toll queue could also help clean the air by reducing emissions from millions of idling cars.

No-stop tolls and more

But computerized toll-collecting is just the beginning in "smart card" technology. The next step is to expand the uses of the card to become an all-purpose smart card that acts as a debit card, credit card, and driver's licenses and can be used to pay bus and train fares and parking fees. In fact, last year, Washington, D.C., began testing a single card for bus, rail, and parking payment.

Soon, smart cards will emit radio signals to allow highway agencies to electronically monitor traffic flow and target traffic jams.

New Jersey's Department of Transportation is set to begin a pilot smart-card project next year, in which computer chips containing personal information will be embedded in driver's licenses.

Yet, with so much personal information on one piece of plastic - and all of it accessible by a growing number of privately run computer networks - some have raised Big Brother concerns.

Big eye in the sky?

A report by George Mason University's Institute of Public Policy in Fairfax, Va., last year warned that smart-card information would be "an invaluable tool to the direct marketing industry" and could potentially be used by businesses as well as the government to snoop into the "sacred corners of our lives."

The concern is that without pre-arranged protocols for use of such detailed data, it could be abused. In New York and Florida, for instance, police are already using toll records to check suspects' whereabouts and investigate stolen vehicles.

But Gary Corino of the Federal Highway Administration's technology office in New Jersey says smart cards will actually be more secure because they'll consolidate license, credit, and debit cards into one super-card.

"It's definitely the way of the future," Mr. Corino says. "It has the potential to replace not only your driver's license, but your checkbook and all your charge cards."

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