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The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority is moving ahead with a plan to modernize the toll collection systems on the Dulles Toll Road.

The Dulles Toll Road was built in 1984, prior to the advent of electronic toll tags, and has always been a cash-centric system by design. While some E-ZPass-only lanes have been added in recent years, the exits and main toll plaza feature manned tollbooths and exact change lanes at which drivers toss coins into a basket.

With more than 80 percent of toll road users making the switch to the electronic toll tags and tolls reaching the level that a driver now needs seven quarters to use the exact change lanes, it is time for the airports authority to consider updating the system, said Chris Browne, vice president and manager of Washington Dulles International Airport.

The airports authority took over toll road operations from the Virginia Department of Transportation in 2006.

In the short term, MWAA plans to extend its contract with its current toll collection equipment contractor, TransCore, because many of the tolling systems are proprietary and can only be maintained by TransCore, Browne said.

However, the agency will amend the contract to have TransCore replace the main computer system for the toll road, which is 17 years old, and remove the exact change lanes to convert them to E-ZPass lanes.

These changes will reduce the agency’s maintenance budget for the toll road, Browne said.

“A lot of what we are spending is keeping these old baskets and coin machines going,” he said.

The short-term upgrades are expected to cost about $6 million.

Customers will still be able to pay with cash at the staffed tollbooths for the foreseeable future, Browne said.

Legacy toll roads that have tried to wean their customers off cash too soon have seen sharp drops in revenues, he said.

In addition to working with the current contractor on those changes, the authority plans to put out a competitive bid for a completely new collection system later this year, Browne said.

“The current system cannot accommodate the types of technology and tolling options that this board is interested in,” Browne told the MWAA Board of Directors Wednesday morning.

With a modern collection system, the board can consider options like distance-based toll pricing or having different toll rates at different times of day. Right now, the system can’t even accept credit cards.

One of the requirements of the new system will be that it does not use proprietary technology, Browne said, so that the authority can continue to competitively bid maintenance and upgrade contracts.

The new collection system is expected to cost $10 to $15 million, Browne said.

The MWAA Board’s Dulles Corridor Committee recommended approval of the changes to the contract with TransCore on Wednesday. The full board will take up the matter at its next meeting, in October.

kschumitz@fairfaxtimes.com