The Betsy Ross Bridge will be the first area span to get an express E-ZPass lane.

The Delaware River Port Authority took initial steps yesterday to install a toll lane with an overhead tag-reader that will let cars drive through at 45 m.p.h.

A DRPA board committee approved spending up to $350,476 to design the express gantry, which would probably occupy the two left lanes of the westbound approach to the bridge.

The express gantry is expected to be ready for traffic in 12 to 18 months.

The Betsy Ross is the newest and least-used of the DRPA's four crossings over the Delaware River. In the first six months of the year, 3.4 million vehicles crossed the bridge, down 18 percent from the same period a year ago.

The Commodore Barry Bridge may get an express E-ZPass lane "soon after we embark on this one," said John Matheussen, chief executive officer of the DRPA.

The oldest and busiest bridges, the Ben Franklin and the Walt Whitman, are unlikely to get the high-speed lanes because of the traffic approaches and exits on those bridges, Matheussen said.

The Ben Franklin has several highways and local streets converging on the toll booths, making it difficult to locate a high-speed lane there. The Walt Whitman has several right-hand exits immediately past the toll booths, which could complicate efforts to install an express gantry there.

High-speed electronic toll lanes are "a coming thing" on bridges, said Neil Gray of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.

"It tends more typically to be on highways, but increasingly bridges are taking steps in that direction," he said, citing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland as one that has dedicated high-speed lanes to electronic payers.

Stantec Consulting Services Inc. of Mount Laurel was selected as the design consultant for the high-speed project.

The DRPA board yesterday also approved the hiring of a new chief operating officer. Timothy M. Pulte, a commercial real estate manager, will be paid $180,081 a year to oversee daily operations of the DRPA's bridges, the River Link ferry, and the Philadelphia Cruise Terminal.

Pulte, of Garnet Valley, was president and partner of the GVA Smith Mack real estate firm, headquartered in Wayne. He replaces Elizabeth Murphy, who resigned in August 2007.

The DRPA board, which has long been criticized for patronage hiring, yesterday voted to open up its system of selecting attorneys, bond counsel, financial advisers, and other service providers. The board established a policy of soliciting statements of qualifications from interested professionals in an "open and competitive" process.

The final selections will be made by a DRPA executive committee.