Sometime in November, the New York State Thruway system will transition to cashless tolling. All of its tollbooths will go dark, and a network of electronic tolling monitors will switch on.
For months throughout the pandemic, the $355 million project employed over 800 workers who built and assembled 70 steel columns, known as gantries. They rise up over the lanes at 58 points in the 420-mile ticketed system.
Eric Christensen, who’s been with the Thruway Authority for more than 30 years, has been working on the project since 2007, when an electronic tolling system was first envisioned.
Now, just weeks away from when the system goes live, he’s giving me a tour. It includes climbing up a ladder to the top of the gantry, where there is a metal grated walkway. This one is near Exit 24, a major intersection that links New York City, Montreal and Buffalo.
It’s perfectly safe -- but not for the faint of heart, as tractor-trailers barrel through at 65 mph right under our feet.
The top of the gantries house the sensors.
“See the white box that looks like a pizza box? That's how we read the E-ZPass tags,” Christensen said.
There are also double sets of cameras that take photos of front and back license plates as vehicles whiz by underneath. Treadles in the road measure the number of axles, and there’s a height sensor.
“The number of axles and the height of the vehicle determine the classification of the vehicle,” Christensen explained.
There won’t be any more toll booth transactions once the switch is made.
Thruway Authority Executive Director Matt Driscoll is also with us. He said once the cameras are fully functioning, for those with E-ZPass, the tolls will continue to be deducted from their accounts at the same rate as before. For those without the electronic toll tag, a bill will sent to the address listed on the vehicle’s registration.
“We are asking people to recognize the importance of getting an E-ZPass,” said Driscoll. “Because it’s going to save you money.”
Until the end of the year, the rate will be the same whether you have an E-ZPass or not. But beginning in January, the rates for those who pay tolls by mail may jump as high as 30%. The Thruway Authority has proposed the fee increase, but it is still subject to public hearings and has not yet been finalized.
The passes are available at all Thruway service plazas, Department of Motor Vehicle offices and some retailers.
The transition also means that after 66 years, there will no longer be any toll booth collectors; 903 part-time collectors will be let go. Driscoll said beginning in 2018, the Thruway Authority provided training to those workers so they can seek other jobs with comparable pay.
There are also 100 full-time toll takers. About 30% are retiring, and Driscoll said the Thruway Authority is helping the rest to get placed in other state agencies.
“They’ve really been, quite honestly, the backbone of this system since its inception,” Driscoll said.
Even after the switch is made to electronic tolling, the toll booths themselves won’t be going away fully for at least another year. The Thruway Authority says it will take until at least through 2021 to remove all of the 54 remaining structures.