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New turnpike machines to take personal tolls
Drivers using the new Kansas Turnpike interchange in Leavenworth County won't get a chance to make small talk with a toll collector - unless it's through a push-button video feed and audio link with a turnpike employee miles away. Turns out that the new interchange - at what will be exit 212, set to open by the end of next year - will not have any personal service on site. Both off ramps onto Leavenworth County Road 1 instead will be equipped with Automated Toll Payment Machines (ATPMs), technology akin to the self-check lanes at Dillons or the pervasive pay-at-the-pump fueling stations. Those lanes will be adjacent to the current technology standard, K-TAG lanes. The loss of human contact on the turnpike won't stop in Leavenworth County. Another nine turnpike exits are slated to get the new machines in the next several years. Among them: both ramps at the Lecompton interchange, and the new toll plaza expected to open by 2011 at the soon-to-be-reconfigured East Lawrence interchange. Machines at the Lecompton and East Lawrence interchanges won't be used all the time - they'll be employed only during low-traffic periods, such as early in the morning - but who knows? Perhaps it's inevitable that the units will be accepting tickets, computing tolls, making change and printing receipts all the time one of these days. Why? The turnpike already knows it can recoup its investment in the machines and related expenses - at the Leavenworth County interchange, anyway - within a couple of years. Maintenance and energy costs figure to be lower than those for employee wages, benefits and training. The turnpike has about 200 human toll collectors, and their ranks will be expected to dwindle to 180 or so within the next few years, as the initial machines make their way into service. "We will cut back on hiring, and we will be transferring people from one location to another," said Alan Bakaitis, the turnpike's toll operations director, who noted that some Lawrence employees could be dispatched to the turnpike's Eastern Terminal instead. "Our goal is to do this through natural attrition and transferring existing staff." But don't expect all real-life toll collectors to be going away, at least not right away: ¢ A typical transaction using one of the machines will be expected to take anywhere from 30 to 45 seconds, Bakaitis said, at least early on. A collector at a busy interchange can process one every 15 or so seconds. ¢ The machines are ideal for places, or time periods, with relatively little traffic. The Leavenworth County exits will be expected to handle only 2,220 vehicles per day - and that's not until the year 2030, according Rex Fleming, project engineer. (That would translate to fewer than one vehicle per machine every two and a half minutes, and we're not even accounting for the hundreds of drivers that would choose K-TAG instead.) But just to be safe, the turnpike is putting two of the ATPMs on each exit ramp, which will be "double the number of booths we'd normally have at that location," Bakaitis said, because officials want to be sure drivers understand the system. Then there's the video feed. Each machine will be monitored by a real, live person working at a remote location, Bakaitis said. Drivers will be able to summon a turnpike employee by pushing a button - whether it's to clarify how the machine works, to report a problem with its operations or simply to ask for directions. In the end, turnpike officials note that reducing operational costs will help keep tolls as low as possible.