ETC at toll plazas with interoperability can help reduce peak-hour congestion on urban highways with faster automated toll collection, writes Girish Shirodkar.The Punjab & Haryana High Court opened a new chapter in the Indian infrastructure story, when on September 4, 2012 it forbade toll collection on the busy Delhi-Gurgaon expressway for a period of 15 days, later extended till September 30. Toll collection was restored on October 1 in non-peak hours and on October 8 in peak hours. This is the first instance where concessionaire revenues have been suspended for severe deficiencies in service.Tangible infrastructure or intangible service?India is such an infrastructure-deprived nation that the sole focus has been on “surface quality” and number of lanes. In the last 15 years, as long as the basic operations and maintenance standards were met, the success of operators was measured in traffic and revenues, not actual time saved or services delivered. The reality is that the user experience on many expressways, both rural and urban, is far from optimal. An IIM Calcutta and Transport Corporation of India study estimated that delays at toll plazas cost the economy Rs 27,000 crore annually, and resulted in additional fuel consumption of Rs 60,000 crore.This concept of service quality in infrastructure is not new. In the 90s, it was good enough for an airport to be just that – runways for takeoff/landing and a terminal for passengers to en/de-plane. Today, an airport is much more than that – service quality is stringently monitored and benchmarked across parameters such as queue lengths, waiting time at check-in/security, time taken for baggage to arrive etc. Passengers today expect airports to have a pleasing efficient departure/arrival process, supplemented with a quality retail offering.A cursory comparison of a typical BOT roads concession agreement and the Operation Management and Development Agreement (OMDA) for Delhi/Mumbai reveals a fundamental divergence in approach: The very master plan of an airport is predicated on a peak hour service level for serving a design year, and service quality must meet international benchmarks. In fact, the OMDA mentions clear penalties for missing service levels (2.5 per cent of revenue) and development standards (up to 15 per cent of revenue). For highways, the number of lanes in a toll plaza is linked to PCUs, but there is no defined protocol to measure service quality on a daily basis. Monthly inspections are mandated to ensure surface quality but service levels only find passing mentions.The Delhi-Gurgaon expressway does have specified wait times (for eg, 12 sec for tag lanes), but the concessionaire is not known to have been penalised in these 4.5 years. The latest National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) note on this expressway plans to lift the boom barrier if the queue stretches over 400 m from the plaza. The long standing demand of the concessionaire for police support to ensure no cash payment in tag lanes, finds itself omitted. This brings into question NHAI’s seriousness on ensuring service quality.ETC: Solution to toll plaza woesA common complaint with expressways is long queues to pay toll, often in odd denominations. The 2008 Fee Rules rationalised toll prices to be in multiples of Rs 5, but it didn’t apply to prior concessions. For eg, in April 2011 the Delhi-Gurgaon Super Connectivity (DGSCL) toll at KM-24 plaza increased from Rs 20 to Rs 21. On the first day, commuters were unaware of the change and the resultant jams stretched back 3 km.While our hard infrastructure is being upgraded, the soft highway infrastructure is still non-existent. Most highways collect cash tolls while many countries have Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) systems, which allow automated toll collection even at 100 km/h (see image).NHAI’s apex committee on ETC implementation has estimated the cost of ETC infrastructure to be ~Rs 20 crore investment and Rs 5 crore operating costs respectively, in the first couple of years. There would be additional benefits for concessionaires as ETC systems would increase throughput, reduce manpower requirement and eliminate pilferage and cash management costs – ETC lanes can pay for themselves in a few years. As ETC tags are prepaid NHAI itself would also enjoy a significant interest-free float. The cost of a passive RFID tag in the form of a sticker is about Rs 100 - this cost can be easily recovered from customers.NHAI published a draft standard for “RFID Transceiver and Tag for Nationwide ETC System” in June 2011. Beginning April 2012, ETC lanes have begun to come up in many other toll plazas across NH1 and NH22. However, NHAI floated the Expression of Interest (EoI) for selection of vendor for implementation of ETC system only in June 2012. Hence, there is still time before we can drive across our country, unhindered by jams at toll plazas.However, highways with pre-existing ETC systems like Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway and Bangalore Electronic City Elevated Highway (BETL) are choked because customers disobey rules and try to pay cash in ETC lanes. NHAI needs to plan for interoperability with users of legacy ETC systems as well.Clearly, piecemeal physical implementation is not enough – a systems mindset is required. On the infrastructure side, NHAI should rollout ETC to most major highways, create nationally valid ETC tags, amend the requisite laws and leverage local police departments to enforce ETC lanes. On the customer side, there should be a dedicated awareness drive; initial subsidies to encourage adoption. Monthly tags with 50 per cent discounts were the reason the Delhi-Gurgaon expressway sold 22,000 tags in the first fortnight itself.ETC can even help reduce peak-hour congestion on urban highways. Globally, cities such as London, Stockholm, New York, Singapore and Hong Kong use ETC systems for variable pricing by time of day to moderate traffic and increase average speeds in peak-hours.The way forwardETC implementation is only the starting point. The need of the hour is to redefine the BOT operator’s role from a passive construction, operation and maintenance (O&M) and tolling role to an active traffic planning and management role.Operators should actively solve congestion problems across the length of the highway and provide supplementary services such as restaurants, parking, service centre, drinking water and emergency healthcare facilities at requisite distances. In highways where these provisions are available, there should be regular information signposts to make travellers aware of these facilities.NHAI should augment the existing O&M framework with a highway service quality framework that monitors key parameters such as toll plaza queue length and waiting times, status of known choke points, etc. This should be complemented with a holistic legal framework that enables toll operators/police to enforce tag lanes, and enable the deployment of police to penalise any offenders. Ensuring service quality in highways would benefit both NHAI as well as the society at large.RFID SYSTEMRadio Frequency Identification (RFID) systems are used for automatic identification of vehicles, by wirelessly transferring stored information from a tag attached to the windscreen. The tag can be read from a short distance away, and is not required to be in direct line-of-sight of the reader.