When something is free for a long time, there's a tendency to expect that it will remain free forever.
So it is with Maryland's E-ZPass program, which as of July will carry a $1.50-a-month fee to maintain an account. Toll-payers from around the state have reacted with fury to the Maryland Transportation Authority's decision to impose the fee to help make up a $60 million revenue shortfall.
Many readers were indignant at the suggestion here that the decision was a reasonable move to end a subsidy. Some of the less frequent users of Maryland toll facilities objected to the description of them as "a drain on the system."
As a sporadic toll-payer myself, I've loved being a drain on the system. Too bad the state noticed.
Among those who saw it differently was Pat Wojciechowski of White Hall: "$18/year fee trivial? Yeah, it's so trivial that I'm going to cancel my Md. E-ZPass and sign up with Delaware's $3/year E-ZPass."
Pat, it's Pennsylvania that has the $3-a-year fee. Delaware has none, for now, but it'll charge you $25 up front for your transponder. Pennsylvania won't charge for a transponder but will hit you up for a $25 initial deposit for the device compared with a $10 deposit in Maryland. And if you read the fine print, both states claim the right to change the terms.
William L. Wilson of Hydes is one of several readers who questioned the costs associated with maintaining an E-ZPass account.
"The software necessary for both commuter and occasional users has already been developed and installed," Wilson wrote. "As I receive my bill via e-mail, I think it is safe to assume that the entire tracking, billing and debiting process is, as they say, untouched by human hands, and thus the cost is minimal."
It's true that the incremental cost of generating one bill is likely minimal, but that isn't all we're paying for. The vendor who operates E-ZPass paid for the computers and developed the software that operates the system. It pays for the building that houses the equipment and the utilities that cool it. It pays the salaries of those who keep it going. The E-ZPass consortium contracts with that vendor, and its members pay a percentage of the costs of the multistate system. The vendor has to recover its full outlay. And in the great American tradition, it makes a profit.
For the record, the transportation authority puts the cost per E-ZPass account at $2.25 a month - regardless of how much it is used. So there's still a partial subsidy.
Lenny Magsamen writes that "in 2006 when I got my E-ZPass, it was pushed as a way to speed traffic and for everyone no matter how little they used it. Now the state is charging monthly fees. Remember when ATMs first appeared, same deal."
This is a very apt comparison. When the banks wanted to get people to adopt a new technology, they subsidized it for while and called it "free." When the technology reached a critical mass, they ended the subsidy. So what the authority is doing is acting like a business. Isn't that what we're always asking government agencies to do?
Earl Grey of Abingdon wrote that the authority made the wrong decision on E-ZPass.
"I think tolls should have gone up in general. Now, it costs more to have E-ZPass than just pay with cash, which just doesn't make sense. ... I was never planning to get rid of my account though, I just think it's wimpy policymaking."
"Wimpy policymaking" - that's a fair criticism. A less spinally challenged board might have raised the Bay Bridge toll from $2.50 to $3. But that money should have been used to lessen the burden on truckers - who got hammered with 50 percent increases that should have at least been phased in.
E-ZPass customers are getting off easy. Yes, those of us who aren't on commuter plans will now pay more than cash customers. But we're getting something for it - the joy of breezing past tollbooths as the cash customers wait in line. Am I the only one in Maryland who got an E-ZPass for purely selfish reasons rather than to save the planet?