KIPTOPEKE -- It's hard to imagine traveling the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel without stopping at the toll booths or squirreling away a few extra bucks for the fare back home.
But beginning next spring, even people without the $12, one-way toll can glide through the plaza thanks to an electronic toll system that soon will be installed.
The project, which will cost between $1.3 and $1.8 million, will equip toll lanes with technology to read small boxes affixed to the windshields of passing vehicles.
With each trip, those computerized boxes --�which will have a minimal cost and could be free to users -- will deduct the correct toll from a credit or debit card or checking account, said bridge Executive Director Jeff Holland.
"It's getting to be a cashless society and the commission is well aware of that," he said.
The end result, Holland and the bridge commission hope, is congestion relief. Data show a portion of vehicles on the bridge already are equipped with the boxes, called transponders, through compatible electronic collection systems such as E-ZPass or Smart Tag.
"We anticipate that approximately 30 percent of the northeast weekend travelers that utilize the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel already have E-ZPass transponders, so it certainly will alleviate congestion on weekends," Holland said.
In the bridge's plan, the left two lanes in the north and south toll plazas will be used for electronic payment only.
The right three toll lanes will retain toll collectors and booths and still accept cash. But electronic toll collection systems also will be installed in the staffed toll lanes.
The current toll schedule and round-trip discount will still apply.
Travelers can't, however, sail through the toll plaza at highway speeds even with a transponder.
Holland said the electronic toll lanes will allow vehicles to proceed at about 5 mph, and a high-speed gate will regulate traffic.
"We do not have 'express lanes' due to safety (concerns) in the plaza area," he said. Still, he feels having no complete stops and no face-to-face transactions will speed traffic along.
In addition, the transponders will be good for toll roads north from Virginia to Maine and as far west as Illinois -- meaning that Shore residents who enroll in the system can more swiftly navigate toll roads around Richmond, Washington D.C. or U.S. Route 1 in Delaware --�the main thoroughfare from here to Philadelphia and New York City.
In a prepared release about the issue, Holland said the bridge commission selected the IBI Group to assist in implementing the electronic toll system.
"IBI Group's experience working with six of the seven electronic toll roads in Virginia and on the commonwealth's Smart Tag Customer Service Center will be advantageous to the district during the design of the electronic toll collection project."
It's unclear how much the transponder box will cost motorists. The bridge is still in contractual negotiations on the issue.
Holland said in the northeast, in general, the transponder units cost $25 for E-ZPass, but in Virginia, most electronic toll systems provide complementary transponder units.
Originally published Wednesday, June 7, 2006