Electronic tolling not as accurate as it's billed

More than 120,000 vehicles per day cross the Kennedy Bridge. That's 1.4 per second.
More than 120,000 vehicles per day cross the Kennedy Bridge. That's 1.4 per second.
Dane Berglund
Dane Berglund

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - More than 120,000 vehicles per day cross the Kennedy Bridge. That's 1.4 per second. That's a lot of tolling to help pay for the new bridges across the Ohio River. But will you be footing the bill for drivers who blow by without ever having to pay? We went to North Carolina and Illinois to find out.

"It's like a well choreographed dance," said Dane Berglund of the North Carolina Turnpike Authority.

The Triangle Expressway in North Carolina is a toll road without toll booths.

"As a car comes through, it captures the license plate on the back," said Berglund. "As the vehicle passes underneath that electronic curtain, this vehicle detection determines what kind of vehicle it is."

Either the sensors catch your transponder, and bill your account. Or the cameras catch your license plate, and bill you by mail.

"The way it's designed is we're supposed to capture all the transactions in the lanes," said Berglund.

North Carolina claims it bills 99 percent of its tollway users. Turnpike users like George Best don't even check their bills.

"I actually think this is the first toll expressway without toll booths. So I figured they had the technology down cold," said George Best, a turnpike user.

We did too. We left, drove through their tolling stations in a marked WAVE 3 news vehicle, and expected bills in the mail. We received none. When asked for comment this week, Berglund said, "We do not have a Kentucky DMV agreement in place that is why your plate did not show up in the system for you owing tolls."

In fact, North Carolina has agreements with only 12 states to look up DMV records. Berglund said those states make up the vast majority of their tollway users.

WAVE 3 News also tested the Northwest Tollway around Chicago. Unlike the plans for the Ohio River bridges, Chicago still has toll booths. But they also have sensors and cameras that are supposed to catch the transponders and the violators.

On September 24 and 25, WAVE 3 News drove a marked news vehicle through 14 toll stations, from south of Chicago to the Wisconsin state line. We paid the tolls at four of them and blew through the remaining 10 without paying. We wanted to see how many of the 10 violations their high tech system would catch. A month and a half later, we've received zero violation notices.

At the toll stations where we paid, we asked toll collectors what we're supposed to do if we miss one. We were told something different each time.

"Tell the next toll collector that you missed the toll," said one worker.

"There's a map that'll help you to be able to figure everything out, all the directions are on there," said another worker.

"What you can do is go right on line, put your license plate number and today's date, approximate around the time you think it occurred, around it, should pop in which plaza you missed," a third worker said.

"It could be a business rule or could be a failure of the Illinois tollroad to actually capture the license plate," said David Talley of the Kentucky Transportation Department.

So why won't the same thing happen here? We discussed the results of our investigation with the Kentucky Transportation director who's heavily involved in the tolling plans here.

"There are multiple steps in the process where leakage, the term in the industry, can occur," said Talley.

Getting by without paying on toll roads is called leakage.

"The leakage rate for people who pay by mail is higher than just failure to catch a license plate or failure to correctly read a transponder as it goes through," said Talley.

That's why he says it's important to get as many people as possible to use transponders, much easier to track than license plates. By offering discounts, North Carolina has gotten transponder usage up to 58%. Kentucky is hoping for 70%.Talley said they still have three years to plan and he's convinced you won't be paying for unchecked toll violators.

"It's something new, something we have a steep learning curve on," said Talley. "But the technology has proven itself in other places and we're confident we can master it in Kentucky and Indiana."

The final tally: 12 electronic tolling stations tested and zero bills or violations received so far.

When we tried to settle up for the tolls, we couldn't pay in North Carolina. In Illinois, the online system wouldn't let us pay until we actually get violation notices. We finally got someone on the phone and arranged to pay our bill of $17.30.

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