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Transportation
Battery problems jam up E-Zpass users

Sunday, September 21, 2003

By Joe Grata, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When the light in the toll plaza lane didn't flash green as Brad Crooks drove his car through the Irwin interchange July 10, he thought the Pennsylvania Turnpike's E-ZPass system had suffered a temporary glitch.

When it happened again a few days later, he phoned the E-ZPass control center in Harrisburg.

 
 
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"I was told I probably had a dead battery," said Crooks, a daily commuter between Hempfield and Pittsburgh. The E-ZPass transponder, or tag, on his windshield was not even 2 years old. "It took five weeks for them to replace it. That's insane."

Crooks' problem was not uncommon.

Up to 200,000 of the E-ZPass transponders issued during the first two years of the program, according to turnpike officials, may suffer premature battery failure, causing the radio signals they transmit to register improperly or not at all.

When that happens, E-ZPass holders who signed up for the program for its convenience face the inconvenience of settling a $5 toll-violation fee and replacing their transponders.

It's one more headache for turnpike officials, who have gotten ear-beatings about everything from confusion and delays at toll plazas, to erroneous charges and mistaken license-identity cases that have infuriated customers.

"Every toll agency has experienced some of the same problems," said Joseph C. Trakimas, director of the E-ZPass customer service center that a private firm, Transcore, operates under contract to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

"Last month, the turnpike did 5 million E-ZPass transactions. Although we hear the negative side, people were satisfied 99 percent of the time and never said a word."

About 340,000 passenger-vehicle owners have established electronic toll accounts in the 3-year-old program. Cars carrying out-of-state E-ZPass also are honored here because of reciprocity agreements.

The transponders require a $3-a-year maintenance fee. Drivers have to establish at least a $35 line of credit, which the Turnpike taps electronically when E-ZPass customers pass through toll booths.

In one week last month, 3,762 holders of Pennsylvania Turnpike-issued E-ZPasses for passenger vehicles sent back their transponders, complaining they were defective or malfunctioning. Of them, 2,183 were found to have bad batteries.

In New Jersey, with 2.2 million E-ZPass tags in its program, 11,500 drivers returned the devices in a single month recently because of battery and other problems.

And in New York, the turnpike agency began replacing 1.4 million E-ZPasses in November, citing the battery problem.

The battery is inside the G-2 series of transponders, low-watt radio transmitters that are about the size of a deck of cards. They are mounted in the front windshield of small cars and trucks. As the vehicles pass through toll plazas, so-called intelligent electronic equipment calculates tolls and sends the data to Transcore offices for billing.

The transponders are supposed to have a life expectancy of up to 10 years, depending on how often they are used.

Ontario-based Mark IV Industries manufactured the E-ZPass transponders for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and other toll agencies in the Northeast. About 10 million of its tags are in use. The firm sells them to the agencies for about $23 apiece.

In Pennsylvania, where the transponders carry a five-year warranty, Mark IV has been replacing those with defective batteries for free.

The company is producing a new generation of transponders, called the G-3 series, which the Pennsylvania Turnpike is placing in circulation. Officials said the new tags were more accurate and reliable, and that they included technology that prevents certain cell phones from activating and draining E-ZPass batteries.

"Pennsylvania has had no more problems than anyone else," Mark IV spokeswoman Margaret Nathan said.

A colleague, Mark Zimmerman, said the battery problem "is not unique to Pennsylvania" and is an "old story." It's a story that Pennsylvania Turnpike officials have not told, however.

Because of the number of people sending in faulty transponders, and because of the complaints and toll violation notices that must be resolved, Transcore has added several dozen employees, putting the E-ZPass work force at 96.

"People want a replacement the next day, and we can't do that," Trakimas said. "But we have gotten the turnaround time down to within 10 business days."

He said people should become suspicious about battery failure if they fail to see the green light as they pass through toll plazas or start to receive V-tolls, or charges for E-ZPass violations. When they call the E-ZPass customer service center, they're likely to be told to send in their transponders. If it's bad after testing, it will be replaced. If it's good, there is usually some other problem.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike had about 340,000 E-ZPasses in use at the beginning of the month, and almost as many drivers from other states used their E-ZPasses on Pennsylvania's toll road. The out-of-staters are mostly commuters in the Philadelphia area. About 35,000 E-ZPass accounts have been set up by drivers who live in southwestern Pennsylvania.


Joe Grata can be reached at jgrata@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1985.

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