MONTREAL — The Montreal regions’s two toll bridges — Highway 25 and Highway 30 — opened within 19 months of one another. They are 50 kilometres apart. They were both built on Transport Quebec’s order.
But drivers need two transponders and two accounts if they want to automatically pay the tolls as they drive over the spans. And a third may clutter windshields once the new Champlain Bridge opens in 2018.
“I’m pleading: please try to come up with one system — let’s not invent a third one,” said Marc Cadieux, head of Quebec’s trucking-company association.
After the Highway 25 bridge opened, Cadieux urged Quebec to ensure electronic tolls on the impending Highway 30 span would be compatible. The plea fell on deaf ears.
A different consortium built and will operate each bridge for 30 years.
“The problem is those private consortiums want to have their own suppliers,” Cadieux said. “But the thing is, the government should have contractually obliged (Highway 30) to harmonize with the existing system.”
Truckers are particularly hard hit by the lack of foresight, Cadieux said.
Juggling separate systems is a costly administrative burden that dissuades trucking companies from using the bridges, he said.
Tolls returned to Quebec highways more than two years ago but the province is only now getting around to studying whether it can make various systems compatible.
In November, Transport Quebec hired consultants for advice on toll technology, including how to make tolls compatible.
The consultants will help “develop a global strategy to harmonize (Quebec toll technology) with Canadian and North American norms,” Transport Quebec says.
The consulting contract is for up to $900,000 over three years, but not all of that is for toll compatibility, said department spokesperson Mario St-Pierre.
Quebec signed the contract with the Highway 25 consortium in 2007. The toll technology chosen does not require drivers to slow down or stop.
The Highway 30 contract was signed one year later. Its tolling system compels drivers to stop at toll booths or slow down to allow the system to detect transponders.
Why didn’t Quebec oblige bidders to use compatible systems?
The problem was that “interoperability standards for tolling technology equipment had not been defined” yet, St-Pierre said.
It would have been “risky” to include tolling-system requirements in contracts, as technology was changing rapidly and Transport Quebec didn’t want the system it ordered to be obsolete before it was installed, he added.
With a third toll bridge now set to open in the region, Transport Quebec says it has decided to study the issue under pressure from Quebec’s trucking industry and the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal.
Other jurisdictions have found ways to make toll systems interoperable. Fifteen U.S. states now use the E-ZPass system, introduced in 1993.
In Quebec, it will likely be years before tolls are compatible. New technology will have to be installed at a cost that has yet to be determined. Contracts will also have to be renegotiated with the private consortiums that operate the two provincial bridges.
Quebec says it’s too early to say whether E-ZPass may be part of an eventual technology change in the province.
As for the Champlain, a federal structure, Ottawa hired a company late last year to “write technical requirements to help identify options for the operation of electronic tolling systems,” said Roxane Marchand, a Transport Canada spokesperson. It should be completed by June 2014.
She said Ottawa “will work with Quebec to examine the potential compatibility of electronic toll collection on the new bridge” with the highway 25 and 30 systems.
The study will look at making the Champlain system compatible with the U.S. E-ZPass system, she said.
Trucks carrying $20 billion in goods cross the Champlain annually, many of them heading to or coming from the U.S.