Officials don't expect big hit from E-ZPass fee change

January 12, 2009|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,michael.dresser@baltsun.com

For Asa Erickson, the Maryland Transportation Authority's proposal last week to charge a $1.50-a-month fee for an E-ZPass account is reason enough to drop the service. And he believes he's going to have a lot of company.

"I'm not going to pay that fee," the 32-year-old northern Baltimore County resident said. "They're going to have a huge number of people dropping their accounts."

Perhaps. But Maryland motorists are going to face two trends in the coming years: Toll roads are becoming more common, and toll booths are going extinct. Drivers might want those E-ZPasses.

And officials in nearby states say that when they imposed fees similar to the ones proposed in Maryland, hardly anyone dropped their accounts.

Last January, the Delaware River and Bay Authority, which operates the Delaware Memorial Bridge, introduced a $21 transponder charge and $1.50 monthly fee identical to what Maryland is proposing.

Jim Salmon, spokesman for the authority, said there was an initial negative response to the proposal but that most customers kept their E-ZPasses. He said about 1,400 of the more than 40,000 customers who had been issued E-ZPasses through the authority dropped their accounts when the new charges were introduced, but virtually all of them were infrequent users who had little effect on congestion on the bridge.

The charges did not stymie the growth of E-ZPass use on the bridge, Salmon said. Electronic toll collection accounted for 60 percent of the bridge's business last year, up from 57 percent in 2007.

The Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission, which operates seven toll bridges between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, had few cancellations after it imposed a $1-a-month fee last month. "The best way to describe it would be a hiccup," spokesman Joe Donnelly said.

Peter Samuel, editor of Frederick-based Toll Road News, said that is consistent with what he has seen around the country. "I've never seen any drop in the percentage of the people using E-ZPass as a result of those fees," he said.

For Erickson, who said that he drives on a toll road or bridge only about five times a year, it probably makes sense to turn in his E-ZPass transponder. The amount of time he saves might not justify paying $18 a year, plus the new $21 charge to replace the previously free transponder when its battery gives out after an estimated seven years of operation.

Officials say they lose money on such customers as Erickson because the agencies have been subsidizing the costs of providing their transponders and maintaining their billing accounts.

In effect, the subsidies are financed by other drivers - either cash customers or frequent pass users. Because people like Erickson go through the toll facilities so infrequently, their choice of cash lanes or electronic toll lanes has a minimal effect on congestion.

"It may not be worth their while or the agency's while," said Jim Crawford, executive director of the Interagency Group, the multistate consortium that operates the E-ZPass network. Crawford said that early on, agencies found it necessary to subsidize electronic collection to get enough traffic to justify devoting lanes to an unfamiliar service.

But now, he said, more than half of the traffic at Maryland toll facilities pays electronically, and authorities are reconsidering whether such subsidies are necessary. Of the 19 toll agencies in the network, seven currently charge for transponders and seven charge monthly fees.

Maryland would become the second toll authority to collect both a $21 transponder charge and a $1.50 monthly fee. Other authorities charge as much as $25.95 for a transponder and from 25 cents to $1 a month to maintain accounts.

Even at $1.50, Crawford said, the agencies aren't covering the full cost of maintaining the accounts. He said that because Maryland had charged no fees, it has attracted a disproportionate number of out-of-state E-ZPass subscribers who maintain their account here but do most of their traveling elsewhere.

For commuters, E-ZPass use can yield considerable savings. In Maryland, for instance, an E-ZPass user on a commuter plan gets 80 percent off the $2 toll for use of one of the Baltimore harbor crossings.

Spokeswoman Cheryl Sparks said that as part of what it has called its "cost-recovery" program, the transportation authority is proposing to nudge the remaining commuters who purchase multiple-use tickets onto the E-ZPass program. She said the ticket program is proposed for elimination July 1 and that commuter discounts would be available only with an E-ZPass. Other travelers who might be reluctant to give up their transponders are those who travel even a few times a year along the Interstate 95 corridor between the Mid-Atlantic, New York and New England. For those motorists, who might pass through a half-dozen or so toll facilities before reaching their destinations, having the E-ZPass can shorten their travel times by an hour or more.

The network now stretches from Maine to Virginia and as far west as Illinois, including toll roads and bridge and tunnel authorities. This September, the longtime holdout Ohio Turnpike Commission is scheduled to join the system.

Doing without an E-ZPass could become even more challenging in the next several years.

Coming in 2011-2012 is the Intercounty Connector, which will connect Interstate 95 with the I-270 corridor in Montgomery County. In keeping with the trend around the country, the new toll road is to be toll booth-free. Motorists will pay either through E-ZPass or through video cameras that record license plate numbers. Those without transponders would pay extra for billing costs.

"We're all arguing over a dying industry because cash toll collection is dying," Samuel of Toll Road News said. Toll booth attendants, he said, are going the way of elevator operators.

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