NEW GLOUCESTER — Don't stop.
That's the single most important message Maine Turnpike Authority spokesman Dan Morin said he has for drivers who use the new high speed E-ZPass lanes beginning next week.
"It's about the convenience, the safety, the emissions," he said. "But at the same time, the most important thing is, please don't stop. Continue to go through. If you make a mistake, keep going and call us later. The last thing we want is someone trying to climb over the concrete barrier trying to pay a toll."
Morin and other turnpike staff gave local media, legislators and members of the Turnpike Authority a tour of the facility Monday. It's scheduled to open to the public officially at midnight Monday, April 1.
"I think its going to be a very big thing, especially for Lewiston-Auburn drivers," said Conrad Welzel, government relations manager for the Turnpike Authority. "Basically, they can get on in Auburn and get off in Portland without having to stop once."
The new system will let E-ZPass holders breeze through the toll booth at full speed, without slowing down. The center lanes of the turnpike's Mile 67 toll booth have been converted to the new system — one for the northbound traffic, a second for southbound traffic — with stronger cement barriers separating the E-ZPass lanes from the cash toll lanes.
Morin said authority officials hope the lanes will make the E-ZPass system more popular.
"It's one thing when you stop to pay your toll and you see a guy go through at 10 miles per hour, you don't notice it so much," Morin said. "But it's another thing when they go by at 65 — whoosh, whoosh, whoosh! They're going to say, 'Hey. I want to do that.'"
That's where the concern about stopping comes in. Absent-minded cash toll users who find themselves in the E-ZPass lane should just go with the flow and never stop. The 20-foot wide lanes don't have room to let cars pass so a stopped car runs a serious risk of getting rear-ended.
"We've had people realize they were in the E-ZPass-only lane before, and they've stopped completely, gotten out and tried to walk across the lanes to pay the toll attendant," Morin said. "We don't want them to do that ever, but it's one thing if they try to do it and the speed limit is 10 miles per hour. It's completely different if the speed limit is 65 miles per hour."
Morin said the authority has mounted a radio and advertising campaign reminding drivers not to stop and they've installed signs in both lanes leading up to the E-ZPass toll. Cash customers who do make it through can call the authority at 888-682-7277 to arrange payment later on.
Mills said the Gray barrier is the first in Maine to get the new service, but he does not expect it will be the last. The current system would work well at the West Gardiner tolls as well as York barrier, he said.
"But we have not decided where yet," Mills said.
Walter Fagerlund, a technical adviser with transportation engineers HNTB, said six cameras and three E-ZPass sensors are mounted above each high-speed toll lane.
A series of electronic loops buried under the lane sense when a vehicle begins moving through the toll area, how many axles it has and when it leaves. The license plate of every vehicle passing through the toll booth is photographed.
For E-ZPass customers, those photos are discarded immediately. Cash customers can expect a notice from the authority if they don't make contact first, Morin said.
The system has been installed for several weeks while engineers and turnpike staff tested it. They've driven through on motorcycles, in cars, trucks, tractor-trailers, buses and just about every vehicle they could imagine making sure there was room and the system worked.
They've also tested it at a variety of speeds, from cars coming to a complete stop in the area to state troopers triggering the system at 102 miles per hour.
"It has to be built with backups in place," Fagerlund said. "We can't have failure and have the system go down. It just has to work."