Frequent cheaters running through toll plazas on the West Virginia Turnpike, be warned: Your days of free travel could be numbered.

Final testing of an added feature in the new $5 million toll collection system is expected to be completed soon, and up and running within a month, Manager Greg Barr disclosed Thursday at a meeting of the West Virginia Parkways Authority’s committee meetings.

“It takes about 30 days of testing,” he said of the violator detection feature that is part of the contract with TransCore.

“They want another couple of weeks to tweak it.”

In current practice, when a motorist breezes through a toll plaza without paying, a buzzer goes off and a red light comes on, alerting Turnpike officials that someone has cheated. A picture is taken of the license plate.

“What we will have in the new system is an automated optical character recognition type camera (OCR) that actually reads the plate without us manually having to look at a picture and keying in the plate number,” Barr explained.

There are many reasons why a toll is skipped, triggering the camera, even for those carried as dues-paying E-Z Pass customers.

For instance, the batteries could be dead, or a driver might have multiple vehicles and leave the transponder in one other than the one he is traveling in. Or, Barr noted, the customer’s account could be too low to cover the toll.

“We have that plate on record, so we could charge their card,” Barr said.

“If they don’t have one (pass), then they’ve cheated. That’s when you get a violation notice.”

Given the expense of tracking down violators, however, Barr said it likely would take more than three skipped transactions before the Turnpike would act. For instance, he noted, missing tolls three times at the North Beckley exit would be only a loss of $1.20 — hardly worth shelling out postage to collect.

“There’s a certain economy of an efficient operation,” Barr said.

“You can’t just send out for one violation. For those that are violating on a frequent basis, they can expect to start getting some notices.”

Parkways counsel A. David Abrams said the violator detection feature only costs $7,002 in the overall contract, obligating the authority to implement a change order to allow for it.

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In other matters, committees learned good and bad news about Tamarack’s operation from Deputy Manager Dwight Trent.

Retail was down $4,600 in April, but food sales climbed by $17,000, and the conference center surpassed both budget and last year’s corresponding period with a total of $82,000.

Visitors have decreased, with 11,228 showing up at the artisans center near the Beckley exit in April, but bus tours have increased.

Through Wednesday, he told the authority, Tamarack is up $1,849 in retail sales, and $3,200 in food, but the museum checked in with only $20,000, meaning it faces “a major challenge” to mirror last year’s budget.

Some repairs are in order, Trent said, not the least of which are the doors, both the huge brass ones that admit visitors, and the wooden ones inside the structure. Keeping them clean is a constant problem as well, Barr pointed out.

“Labor and cleaning materials would pay for doors in a very short time,” Trent told the committees.

“You have to clean them every other day.”

That issue looms for the full board’s monthly meeting on June 7 in Charleston, along with another Tamarack problem — a roof that is in need of either repairs or complete replacement. The committees learned a new roof would be $57,000.

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Highway production manager Jim Meadows advised the committee that ditches are being shored up between Mileposts 30 and 36, with paving set to begin there in the second week of June.

Mill and inlay work has been performed going southbound, and crews next will begin work in the northbound lanes.

“We anticipate finishing up to the I-64-77 split somewhere by the end of next week, then move north and finish up the north end,” Meadows said.

“All paving will be completed by the end of August.”

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