The MTA's vision of replacing cash toll collectors with video cameras on its crossings could prove expensive to some motorists if a plan to charge steep penalties to toll violators is approved Wednesday.
In what's being called a pilot project for a possible conversion of all nine of the MTA's bridges and tunnels to cashless tolls, the Henry Hudson Bridge is set to lose its cash toll collectors by 2012.
E-ZPass users will be able to cross the bridge, which connects Manhattan to the Bronx, the same as they ever did. Those without E-ZPass will have pictures of their license plates taken by cameras and be billed by mail for the toll amount.
Failure to pay that toll on time will result in a $50 penalty - if the MTA Board approves the fee at a meeting Wednesday.
"It does seem like it creates a lot of excess complications for those who don't have an E-ZPass," said Robert Sinclair, spokesman for AAA New York, who nevertheless said his organization supports the plan as a means of alleviating congestion at toll crossings. "At least we're getting something for our money."
During the trial period, which will last until at least the end of 2012, the Henry Hudson Bridge will become the first completely cash free urban toll crossing in the country, MTA Bridges and Tunnels spokeswoman Judie Glave said Tuesday.
Depending on the success of the trial run, which is costing the MTA $10 million, the MTA could convert to cash free tolling at all of its crossings.
MTA board member Mitchell Pally, of Stony Brook, who sits on the board's bridges and tunnels committee, said the agency's aim is to appease the majority of the driving public. More than 75 percent of drivers in the region use E-ZPass, Pally said.
"It's something that people have been after us to try, and our feeling is we should try it and see if it works," Pally said.
The plan is part of a broader initiative laid out by MTA chairman Jay Walder earlier this year to overhaul the struggling transit authority, which is wrestling with a $900-million budget gap. Removing toll collectors from bridges will save money on labor costs and maintenance of toll facilities, Glave said.
About 30 MTA Bridges and Tunnels officers work at the Henry Hudson Bridge. Glave said the MTA has no plans to lay off any workers but savings will come through attrition.
Greg Lombardi, spokesman for the MTA Bridges and Tunnels Officers Benevolent Association, said officers will do their part to try to make the new system work. But he is skeptical that it could save the MTA more money than it will lose.
Lombardi said he expects millions in lost toll revenue from drivers who will not be billed because they are using stolen or counterfeit license plates.
"They're going to lift the gates and say, 'OK, please pay your toll to the beloved MTA,' " Lombardi said. "I think it's a little bit naive in this stage of the game."
Cash free tolling plan
How does cash free tolling work?
E-ZPass customers would not notice a change, except that there would no longer be gates at crossings. Motorists without E-ZPass would have a photo of their license plates taken by a camera and a bill sent to their homes.
What if I don't pay the bill on time?
The MTA board is voting today on a plan to charge a $50 penalty if a toll is not paid within the allotted time frame. That time frame has not yet been established by the MTA.
For now, the MTA only has plans to create a cashless tolling system at the Henry Hudson Bridge. The first phase will begin in January, when the MTA will reduce the number of cash lanes at the toll plaza and remove the toll gates. The bridge is expected to be completely cash-free by 2012.
Does that mean cars will be able to speed through the toll plaza?
No, MTA officials say a speed limit of around 15 miles per hour will remain in effect at the Henry Hudson Bridge toll plaza, which will still have toll booths in place in case the MTA decides to go back to cash tolling.
What if you're an out of state driver?
The MTA says it will use motor vehicles data bases from other states to determine the location of a vehicle's owner and bill that person, wherever they live.
What if a car does not have plates or is using stolen or counterfeit plates?
MTA officials acknowledge that there are such unresolved issues with the plan, and hope to come up with answers during the Henry Hudson Bridge trial program.
Are there similar systems elsewhere?
Cashless tolling systems are used in other parts of the country, including Dallas and Denver, but have never been put in place in an urban setting, MTA officials said.