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Published: Thursday, 10/1/2009

Officials see surge of orders for E-ZPass

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Electronic-toll transponders flew out the doors at Ohio Turnpike Commission headquarters in Berea this week, at a rate of more than 1,000 a day since Monday, turnpike spokesman Lauren Hakos said yesterday.

With the

E-ZPass system set for activation early today at all 239 of the turnpike's tollbooths, 20,698 toll tags had been issued by the Ohio E-ZPass Service Center as of midafternoon yesterday, and turnpike officials expected another surge of orders later this week as cash customers encountered significantly higher tolls that took effect at the same time.

But the activation of E-ZPass on the 241-mile toll road across northern Ohio also produced a surge of transponder orders in neighboring Pennsylvania, with hundreds of Ohioans choosing to get toll tags there with a lower service fee.

Bill Capone, a Pennsylvania Turnpike spokesman, said 536 transponders were sent to Ohio addresses during September, by far the biggest month for out-of-state orders. Through August, Ohio was already the highest volume out-of-state user of Pennsylvania E-ZPass tags, with about 2,300 issued - including "sort of a spike" in June and July, Mr. Capone said.

Ohio's entry into the E-ZPass electronic toll-collection system plugs the last hole in a network of toll roads running from Illinois to New York and all along the Eastern Seaboard.

Customers establish debit accounts, usually linked to a credit card, from which tolls are deducted when a user passes a tollbooth at which a fare is due. A radio system retrieves the customer's information from his or her toll tag at each tollgate.

As a policy matter, the various toll agencies all recommend motorists obtain electronic-toll tags either from their home state or from the agency whose roads or bridges they use most often.

For Ohioans, that probably means the Ohio Turnpike, which primarily is issuing E-ZPass tags through its Web site, www.ohioturnpike.org. For now, if you want to obtain a transponder in person, you have to go to the Berea headquarters, though Ms. Hakos said the turnpike is pondering how it might establish other retail locations, such as at service plazas.

But while the $25 minimum deposit for Ohio tags is among the lowest, the turnpike is charging a $3 initial handling fee and 75 cents a month thereafter for each transponder.

Pennsylvania, by contrast, has no initial fee and an annual service charge of $3 for private accounts, which works out to 25 cents per month. And the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority, which did not respond to an inquiry yesterday about out-of-state customers, charges no fee at all.

That sounded like a good deal to Ewart Skinner of Bowling Green, who is planning a trip to eastern Pennsylvania later this month and routinely attends conferences in Chicago and visits East Coast relatives.

Ms. Hakos said Ohio's fees were established to offset the system's operating costs, and are competitive with other E-ZPass states. Agencies that have issued toll tags at no charge are coming to regret that decision, she said.

Even with monthly fees like Ohio's, E-ZPass will be a bargain for anyone who travels the toll roads to any significant degree, because most participating toll roads and bridges offer discounts to those paying electronically.

On the Ohio Turnpike, the fare increase imposed this morning affects passenger-vehicle drivers only if they're paying in cash, effectively creating a 46 percent discount.

Truckers will pay between 13 and 27 percent less on the Ohio Turnpike if they use E-ZPass.

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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