FASTag, slow lane: why's wait longer at toll plazas?

There are two kinds of costs our toll-ways impose upon motorists — costs at the toll plazas and costs between toll plazas. Costs at toll plazas arise from long queues of vehicles at toll-gates — a familiar sight — resulting in high cost of time wasted waiting, apart from the cost of fuel burnt during these waits. Costs between toll plazas arise from having to pay a fixed rate for the entire stretch between two toll plazas — average of 60 km — rather than a variable charge based on actual stretch travelled, say 10 or 15 km. Taken together, these costs are significant. All this is well known.

The introduction of electronic payment gateways, like the FASTag, was aimed at reducing the waiting time at the toll gates. It is heartening therefore that the highways ministry has sought to address the second element of cost, by announcing its ‘pay as you use’ policy, enabling users to pay toll only for the segment they travel rather than the entire corridor between two toll plazas. But these moves are not sufficient to bring down the total cost for motorists. More needs to be done.

The highways ministry believes that congestion at toll plazas will not reduce unless electronic collection mechanisms reach 70-80% penetration among road-users. It also believes that the more dynamic ‘pay as you use’ policy will help significantly in achieving such levels of penetration of FASTag-like mode of payments.

However, such penetration levels may be difficult to achieve unless various constraints continuing to plague electronic payment systems are addressed. For starters, much good-housekeeping needs to go in if the FASTag system is to effectively reduce the waiting time at the toll gates and result in a paid growth of users adopting FASTags. Today, experience shows that FASTags are actually increasing the processing time at the toll gates rather than reducing it!

How so? Well from my experiences on the highways, including on NH7 in Bengaluru going to and fro the airport, the FASTag system more or less works as below.

As you approach the FASTag lane, there is a man at the lip of the lane who blocks the lane with a cone, until the previous vehicle, some 50 meters away, has first cleared the gate. Only then does he allow you to enter the lane, signalling you to drive slowly for the scanner to read the FASTag code on your windshield. So, you move cautiously and slowly, almost feeling as if the onus of whether or not the scanner reads your tag is entirely dependent on your driving skill through that lane. And then, you find the camera fails to read your tag.

The man casually tells you that perhaps you were too fast, and now one of two things happen. Either you are forced to reverse your car a bit and move to the adjacent common lane, or you continue and reach the red and white bar, where yet another person emerges with a hand-held scanner, takes a good 5-10 seconds to read your tag.

On occasion, even this scanner fails and the person at the computer terminal inside the booth manually lets you pass and your heart takes a somersault of ecstasy when the yellow signal says something like, “Welcome! FASTag Successful”!  The entire process takes significantly more time than with cash payment!

Convoluted system

Now, if to use the electronic system, cars have to stop and interact with two or three different human beings, while the cash system requires interaction with a single individual, one wonders what the benefit of FASTag is. Clearly, the problem needs fixing, and quickly.

And this is the situation when the user penetration of the electronic system is below 12%! As mentioned, the ministry wants a penetration level of at least 70-80%, after which presumably the congestion will ease. But unless the scanning speed of FASTag is improved by an order of magnitude, it would
seem higher penetration of FASTag will only make the queues at the gates longer.

What is more, the authorities need to work harder on the layout of the lanes and have a traffic constable posted to levy fine upon lane jumpers at the toll plazas. How do we improve the toll lanes? Well, the current designs of lanes for the most part are more “unforgiving” than “forgiving”.

For example, should there be a computer malfunction in a booth, or the booth operator wanting to answer nature’s call, or should a scanner not be working, the system is nearly helpless, as many more cars have already lined up behind. The lanes are unforgiving — once a vehicle has entered them, it singlehandedly holds up the entire line behind to ransom because once you are close to the booth, the physical (concrete) barriers on both sides of the lane prevents the line of cars from moving lanes.

Instead, suppose there were electrically-operated sidebars (in place of concrete dividers) near the toll booth. The booth-operator could in a crunch lift the electrically operated bar and move the vehicles from one lane to another. This, then, becomes a “forgiving” system of barrier, where a malfunctioning computer or scanner, or a nature’s call could be accommodated without undue hardships to many.

Also, at toll booths, a traffic constable must be present at all times. It should be easy to pay the police contingent required for a two or three shift operation at the plazas through collections of fines alone.

But, above all, there is a crying need to have vastly improved scanners of sufficient power to read the FASTags clearly and swiftly, with vehicles moving at, say, 20 kmph through the lane. If this is not done, much of the time and effort invested in FASTags will be wasted.

(Raghunathan is an academic and author)

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FASTag, slow lane: why's wait longer at toll plazas?

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