Toll-road rage over modest monthly fee for E-ZPass runs out of gas

The Baltimore Sun

It's been about a month since the Maryland Transportation Authority approved plans to start charging a modest monthly fee for E-ZPass accounts, and the expressions of outrage continue to flow.

You want sympathy? Don't look for it here. Call a politician. Your local legislators might be happy to introduce a bill to roll back the increase or to put the General Assembly in charge of the matter. Oops, some already have.

Those bills are all but certain to fail for several reasons.

One is that the legislature has no business wading into toll decisions. Keeping toll authorities independent reassures bond-rating agencies that legislators can't sacrifice solvency for political points.

Another is that most lawmakers don't want to take on the responsibility. They've got enough headaches with budgets, taxes and policy issues. It's a relief to concede toll decisions to an obscure board. So these bills will be quietly dispatched in committee.

The third reason the proposals will fail is that the E-ZPass fee decision was as correct as it is unpalatable. The authority was facing a $60 million revenue shortfall as a result of economic forces beyond its control. Toll bridges, tunnels and roads have inflexible maintenance needs and steadily rising costs. Charging $1.50 a month for E-ZPass accounts makes good business sense.

You see, what the authority did was not so much impose a fee as end a subsidy. E-ZPass customers were being subsidized to encourage adoption of the technology. Did you think that transponder was free? Did you think bills are generated without cost?

It was, while it lasted, a righteous subsidy - necessary to get the program on its feet. But E-ZPass has grown up now - accounting for more than half the state's toll collections - and no longer needs a warm spot in the incubator. It was time to wean folks off the government goodies.

Oh, the howls! Outrage! Betrayal! We're going to cancel our accounts! We're going to get an E-ZPass through another state! That'll show 'em!

Gimme a break. Has there ever been such an outcry over something so trivial? We're talking about the cost of a cup of coffee once a month for the exquisite pleasure of bypassing all the coin-fumbling drivers who think toll collectors are there to give them directions. We're talking about tollbooth-free travel from Maine to Virginia, Maryland to Illinois. If you're not willing to pay for the privilege, kindly stop bellyaching and turn in your transponder. Just turn up your car radio at the toll plazas so you don't hear me cackling as I cruise by you.

But, many complain, we only use Maryland toll facilities a few times a year. It's unfair that we might have to pay more in fees than we pay in tolls. The government's discriminating against us. If we drop our passes, congestion will go through the roof and the bay will be fouled with pollution.

Reality check, folks. If you have an E-ZPass and you've been using it only a few times a year, you've been a drain on the system. The cost of having you as a customer exceeds what you contribute. The rest of us have been subsidizing you. Your decision won't make much difference in congestion or pollution because you weren't contributing much to either. You won't be missed as a customer.

And if you're one of those folks threatening to open an account in another state, think twice. There's nothing to keep other toll authorities from adopting identical or higher fees. Some now charge more than the $21 Maryland will begin collecting for transponders. All these agencies are under the same revenue pressures as the Maryland authority, and they all watch what the others do. Maryland's E-ZPass action was pretty much a copy of the plan adopted by the Delaware Memorial Bridge authority. Who's next? Pennsylvania? Virginia?

If you're thinking you deserve a break because it costs less to collect a toll from you than it does to rake it in from a cash customer, think again. Yes, there are operating savings with electronic toll collection. But there were also steep capital costs associated with installing the E-ZPass computer systems and reconfiguring the lanes at the toll plazas.

Who subsidized this high-tech venture during the buildup phase? The lowly cash customer. So before we start heaping extra costs on low-tech motorists, we ought to at least give them a few years of payback.

If there's anyone who deserves sympathy in this toll trouble, it's not E-ZPass users but truckers. They got hit with the brunt of the increases - with little notice and no phase-in period. For some, it's a considerable expense that they might not be able to recover from customers with pre-existing contracts. Yes, trucks do tear up the roads and should pay more, but was economic shock therapy the best answer?

A fairer approach would have been to raise tolls on facilities that have not seen an increase in a long time. The $2.50 noncommuter toll for a two-axle vehicle on the Bay Bridge, for instance, has been at that bargain-basement level for three decades. Why not increase it 50 cents and hit the truckers more gently?

That's easy: Because the whining would be deafening.

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