Technology will help enforce HOT lane tolls

Officials at Transurban say they will use multi-band infrared technology to help police enforce high occupancy toll lanes in Northern Virginia.

The company is poised to introduce the region to automated express lanes where high occupancy vehicles ride free.

Infrared sensors would be installed near toll gantries to count passengers, said Ken Daley, Transurban’s vice president of international development.

Transurban has entered into a preliminary agreement with the Virginia Department of Transportation to build high occupancy toll lanes, or HOT lanes, on a portion of the Capital Beltway and from the 14th Street Bridge on Interstate 395 to the Massaponax exit on Interstate 95.

Violators would still face Virginia State Trooper enforcement, said Jennifer Aument, spokeswoman for Transurban.

Infrared sensors that detect reflections from human skin would alert the troopers to the number of passengers, Daley said.

Police could write tickets based on what they see with their own eyes, what they see through infrared sensors, Aument said.

Daley’s confident that the infrared sensors wouldn’t rile privacy advocates.

“Yes, it satisfies that because you never identify the people,” he said.

Police already use infrared sensors to detect over-height tractor trailers. The technology produces dots on a screen that represent people, he said.

Transurban can add the infrared detection system, an emerging technology, to a list of firsts that the company hopes to introduce to the region: high-speed tolling and variable rate tolls are other concepts on which Transurban hopes drivers will latch.

After all, their profits depend on repeat customers.

“Our business model is based on the concept that people will pay for congestion-free travel,” said Aument.

Commuters, carpool groups and especially slugs, the people who ride with strangers to meet HOV requirements on the way to and from work, have been skeptical of the project — to the point of outright mistrust.

Allowing single-occupant vehicles into the express lanes during rush hour in exchange for a toll would destroy the slugging system, some commuters worry.

Aument said Transurban’s goal is to keep the high occupancy toll lanes free flowing.

“Both of us need those lanes to be operating efficiently,” she said. “Our objectives are absolutely aligned.”

A federal mandate requires Transurban to protect carpool vehicles from slow conditions, she said.

The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2005 requires operators of high occupancy toll facilities to keep traffic moving.

If average speeds dip below 45 mph, Transurban would have to improve efficiency, Aument said. And that could require the company to improve interchanges, or even restrict toll-paying customers from entering the express lanes on certain access points, she said.

HOT lanes are not your traditional toll road, Aument said.

There are no toll collection booths – every vehicle must either have a Smart Tag or an E-ZPass transponder. Or, if the vehicle has three or more passengers, the vehicle passes through the toll gantry (and infrared sensors) without paying.

For ride sharing drivers who drive for free some days or want to pay the toll when they are riding alone, Aument said Transurban is developing a transponder with a switch on it.

Drivers would slide the switch to the “HOV” side when they have three or more people in the car. When drivers want to pay the toll, which can vary from 10 cents to $1 per mile, they move the switch to the “toll” side.

Tolls are based on the number of cars on the road and are unlimited, Aument said. A high toll would indicate high amounts of congestion on the HOT lanes, she said. And during off-peak times when traffic is at a minimum, tolls would be at their lowest, she said.