A turnpike without toll booths?
The Kansas Turnpike is taking a significant step in that direction, with the full opening of the first “open road tolling” at the turnpike’s eastern terminal in northeast Kansas this week. Work is already under way at two other plazas on the turnpike, in east Topeka and the southern terminal just north of the Oklahoma border.
The change allows drivers with K-Tags or other compatible devices to continue driving at highway speeds as they bypass the toll booths.
“This is not just a customer convenience thing...it’s a huge safety improvement,” said Rachel Bell, a spokeswoman for the turnpike authority.
All three open road tolling spots are locations where motorists are having to slow from highway speeds to either 10 miles an hour for the K-Tag lanes or to stop entirely to pay at the booth.
The danger of that design was brought home in July when a semi-trailer truck slammed into several vehicles stopped by a bottle-necked construction zone at the eastern end of the Kansas Turnpike terminal. Five people were killed and one was injured.
Another semi crashed into a minivan and the toll booth at the southern terminal near Wellington last year, and the driver of yet another semi was killed three years ago when his truck crashed into an unmanned booth near Tonganoxie.
“Those electronic customers want to travel at highway speeds,” Bell said.
Once the construction work is completed, new readers will be able to scan a K-Tag even at 75 miles an hour and send a bill to the owner. Anyone who uses the open road lanes without a K-Tag or compatible transponder will be issued a violation sent to the motorist’s address.
The fines start at nearly $20 for a passenger car and increase depending on how many axles the vehicle has, according to the turnpike authority’s web site.
People who do not have a K-Tag will still have to go through the plazas and pause long enough to get their tickets and pay their tolls. It will create an incentive for motorists to get a K-Tag, Bell said.
“This is such a drastically different idea for Kansas tolling it’s going to take a little bit to figure it out,” she said. “It just really makes sense for us to do this.”
Before the improvements, K-Tag users had to slow to about 10 miles an hour for their transponders to be read. They’ll still have that option once reconstruction is complete, though Bell expects few motorists to exit for those lanes once they get used to the alternative.
“We can do this,” she said. “Kansans can do this. We just need to learn about it before we get on the road.”
Construction work has already begun at the plaza in east Topeka, Bell said, and two bridges in southern Kansas have been replaced to help accommodate the new design of the southern terminal.
The Topeka project is due to be completed next fall, with the southern terminal finished sometime in 2019. The projects are part of a 10-year plan that has 44 projects through 2025 worth an estimated $1.2 billion.
The plan includes improvements to the south Wichita terminal, Bell said, though the open road design is not an option at this point because of the design and space available.
“South Wichita is a really tight footprint,” she said.
No changes are in the 10-year plan for the Emporia exchange, she said.