Are Illinois tollway payment machines shortchanging cash-paying drivers?
Got family or friends from out of town visiting this Thanksgiving? Tell them to pack nickels and dimes along with the pumpkin pie.
That's because the $76,000 automatic payment machine waiting on the Illinois tollway off ramp has a touchscreen, credit card capability and videotaping ability -- but it won't provide change.
"It's not fair to the patrons who prefer not to have an I-PASS," said longtime toll collector Tim Henert, who works in the Dixon area.
It's not that the machine is incapable of providing change, however. About 30 toll payment machines on the mainline do offer change. But 80 at ramps don't.
Tollway officials did not explain the discrepancy but noted the new machines are a huge improvement on the old-school coin buckets and accommodate credit cards. "That feature has proved to be a popular option among our customers," spokesman Dan Rozek said.
But it's not just the maybe-I-will, maybe-I-won't offer change situation that concerns Henert.
The machines "don't work 100% of the time," he said. So for credit or cash customers who pay twice the I-PASS rate, "it's hit or miss."
Not so, said Rozek. "The ATPMs operate reliably and function well in real-world conditions, with the machines as a whole remaining fully operational more than 99% of the time."
The tollway board in 2017 approved an up to $33 million contract with BIT Mobility Solutions for the automatic machines and has spent $16 million so far.
As of October, 80 machines had replaced cash baskets at unmanned ramp plazas. The "cash baskets at these locations have never given change to customers, and ATPMs at these locations do not either," Rozek said.
The 30 installed at mainline plazas are in locations with low traffic and do provide change, an upgrade from the baskets, he added.
The issue isn't visible because the vast majority of tollway drivers use I-PASS, and 90% of transactions are electronic. But with 2.8 million tolls paid a day, cash and credit customers aren't an insignificant number.
Among glitches Henert cited were machines that didn't accepting payments, failed to give out receipts, or did not offered a reset option.
The new system is difficult for seniors, non-English speakers, disabled patrons and vacationers, he said.
"Every day you see elderly people struggling with it." As time lapses, "people honk and you get road rage," Henert said.
Rozek noted that in October, "the machines collectively experienced an uptime percentage of 99.6%. And when there are issues, the tollway ... responds promptly when service outages occur."
The automation also lets drivers without money or plastic or who can't operate the machine to obtain a receipt and pay their fee online, he noted.
With growing automation, the tollway is losing collector jobs, including 27 in the 2020 budget, although there will be no layoffs, officials said.
After witnessing frustrated motorists as part of his job as a toll collector, Henert thinks "machines should be tools to assist humans, not replace them."
Asked how much the agency had collected in change, Rozek said the amount was "negligible."
One more thing
The Daily Herald checked out ATPMs located along I-88 last Tuesday. At the Northern Illinois University/Annie Glidden Drive exit ramp from westbound I-88, the automatic toll payment machine sucked up $3 for a $2.10 toll as an electric voice intoned, "no change given."
At the DeKalb toll plaza, Missouri businessman Mark Argotsinger tried in vain to use a credit card and cash at the ATPM and said he'd have to pay online.
The Daily Herald had no problems at the same machine, which coughed up $1.40 in change for a $5 bill on a $3.60 cash toll and a receipt. However, at the Dixon toll plaza, change was provided but no receipt.
"It's definitely something that's concerning," said state Sen. Laura Murphy of Des Plaines, a tollway watchdog.
BIT Mobility Solutions is a subsidiary of Portugal's Brisa Innovations.
Got an opinion about the tollway's automated toll payment machines? Drop an email to email@example.com.
Work is wrapping up on tollway construction at the nexus of I-88, I-290 and York Road near Elmhurst. Later in November, westbound traffic will shift to a permanent configuration, but expect some overnight closures to accommodate setup.
"I was ambushed by a buck a few years ago," Christine Hartel of Wheaton writes in response to an earlier column. "In broad early August daylight, no less, on a straight rural two-lane. Over $4,000 damage but no serious injury. Lesson being -- sometimes deer sort of fall from the sky and all you can do is hope to be lucky."
You're warned, drivers in Cook and Kane counties. Illinois State Police will be conducting nighttime patrols on the Jane Addams Tollway (I-90) in Cook and Kane and on the Tri-State Tollway in Cook. The crackdown is part of an effort to reduce impaired driving and enforce seat belt use.