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Electronic inequality - $6,000 North-South device cannot work on East-West

Published:Sunday | April 24, 2016 | 12:00 AMChristopher Serju
One of the many bridges on the North-South leg of Highway 2000.
File Motorists travel through the Caymanas toll booth in St Catherine on the North-South Highway in March 2016.
An operator issuing a receipt at the Portmore toll plaza.
The rates for the Portmore leg of Highway 2000 on July 4, 2015.
The electronic pass lane sign at the Caymanas toll plaza of the Highway 2000 North-South link.

It is a tale of two toll roads in Jamaica - one East-West and the other North-South. Both offer an alternative to the potholes, hairpin bends, and garbage which are a fact of life for pedestrians and drivers using roadways across much of Jamaica.

The recently opened 66-kilometre North-South link of Highway 2000 from Caymanas, St Catherine, to Mammee Bay, St Ann, adds to the country's modern road segments such as the Portmore and Vineyards legs of Highway 2000. Together they make travel around the Corporate Area, Montego Bay, St James, and Portmore, St Catherine, as well as other urban centres across Jamaica, much quicker and more comfortable.

To avoid waiting in line to pay each time they go through a toll booth, some motorists have taken up the prepaid option offered by TransJamaica Highway, operators of the East-West segments. After registering and receiving a top-up card and tag, which is affixed to the vehicle, they enjoy much quicker processing via the automated system in a dedicated line.

Now motorists using the North-South leg are also being offered that convenience - but with a telling difference. E-PASS, the North-South electronic toll system, works in tandem with an onboard unit (OBU) or transponder, a small electronic device installed in the vehicle comprising a series of interconnected units that form a communication channel between a receiving and transmitting antenna.

For those using the East-West link, at the Portmore plaza for example motorists can park in the designated area, go to the toll office and top up their tag card. Those not so inclined can top up by paying the toll attendant the required value in cash.

However, for the North-South link the OBU costs $6,000, separate from the top up value. A spokesman for the operators explained that the unit is solar-powered, and works in tandem with the tag/E-PASS affixed to the vehicle's windshield.

Motorists must go to the toll offices (beside the booth) at Caymanas or Ocho Rios to facilitate OBU purchase and installation, which the operators say takes less than 10 minutes. The sales offices are open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday to Friday.

Commercial customers purchasing OBUs are required to provide their company's Tax Compliance Certificate (TCC) number, vehicle engine number and registration (licence) number. Each vehicle must be taken to one of the offices to facilitate installation. Electronic toll collection is available for all classes of vehicles.

As the unit passes through the designated E-Pass the OBU is read, a green 'Thank You' light flashes and the toll transaction is recorded on the customer's E-PASS account.

Having invested in the OBU and topped up does not mean that a vehicle is now ready to enjoy the convenience of electronic payment on all toll roads in Jamaica.

"Oh no, it doesn't work from one side to the other; its two different operations," Joan Fletcher, chief executive office of the Toll Authority told Automotives. "The Jamaica North South Highway Company and TransJamaica Highway are two separate companies with two different systems and so the tags that you use on East-West are not usable on the North-South highway."

Therefore, motorists planning to go electronic on both highways will have to invest in different electronic toll-collection options in order to enjoy that smoother, quicker, and definitely much more comfortable highway ride without paying as they go.