Ez-pass Free Ride Ends: It's About Time

GETTING THERE

July 06, 2009|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,michael.dresser@baltsun.com

As of last week, it costs $1.50 a month to maintain an EZ-Pass account with the state of Maryland. That's a scandal.

Not the fee. That's chump change. What's appalling is that it took the Maryland Transportation Authority so long to impose it. Not until there was a severe revenue shortfall did the authority's board muster the political courage to partially plug a leak that's been costing the state millions of dollars a year. The money could have gone toward repaving a section of the Kennedy Highway or enforcing traffic laws at the Fort McHenry Tunnel or planning the replacement of antiquated bridges.

It's money that's been squandered.

That's my conclusion after learning last week from Randy Brown, the authority's operations director, that about 72,000 of the state's roughly 535,000 E-ZPass account holders hadn't used their transponders to pay a toll in the past year. He put the annual cost of maintaining those dormant accounts at $1.9 million a year. That doesn't include the $21 cost of the units that were given free to people who don't use them.

I don't think there are a lot of people out there who share my outrage at that. Most of the reaction I've heard is from people who object to the state's attempt to recover its costs. Quite a few boasted that they've closed their Maryland E-Zpass accounts and opened them in states that charge little or nothing.

Many of these folks seemed to think that their collective action could bring the state of Maryland to its knees and paralyze the flow of traffic though its toll plazas. Think again. According to Brown, the state has about 8,000 more E-ZPass subscribers in July than it did in January, before the fee was first proposed.

For those who moved their accounts to another state, the satisfaction will likely be short-lived. Every toll authority in the country is experiencing the same revenue pressure as Maryland. They're all looking for ways to raise money. The obvious first step is to cut waste. And nothing's more wasteful than subsidizing E-ZPass accounts that aren't being used.

These authorities all watch one another, and folks in New Jersey and Virginia and at the Peace Bridge Authority (New York-Ontario) will see that Maryland imposed a fee and the sky didn't fall. They'll follow suit - especially when they realize they're carrying a bunch of Maryland subscribers who rarely pay tolls to them but whose accounts are a drain on finances.

You can't really blame folks who feel betrayed by the imposition of the fee. For a long time, the state was peddling the Myth of the Free Lunch. Here, Dave, have a free transponder. No, Sally, there's no charge for the service. You're doing the planet a service, Jamal. You'll never sit in a tollbooth line again, Maria.

I don't get a free pass here. I didn't blow the whistle on the proliferation of transponders that were going unused. When the former governor and former comptroller were holding cheery press conferences, exhorting everybody to sign up for E-ZPass so we could all reach the beach faster, I didn't ask them the right questions. It wasn't until the authority blew the whistle on itself that I realized I'd missed a darn good story.

(Hint to fellow reporters in other E-ZPass states: Ask your local toll authorities how many of their E-ZPass subscribers have gone a year without using their transponders to pay a toll. Ask how much money they've been wasting as a result. Ask how many Marylanders have signed up in their state over the past six months. It'll be the easiest front page story you ever had.)

There was a sound reason for making E-ZPass available free in the beginning. It is a more efficient way of moving traffic, and it should save costs in the long run, despite heavy, upfront capital costs. And it probably did require a sweetener to get the system to the point where it could stand on its own.

But E-ZPass is been well-established here and through most of the East Coast. The free-lunch offer long outlived its rationale. But because people had been fed a line to get them to adopt the technology, they saw the reduction of a subsidy as an onerous new tax.

As a government entity, the authority feels its has to sugarcoat everything it says. I don't.

If you're not using your E-ZPass enough to justify the cost, ditch the transponder. It's not a tax. You don't have to keep paying $1.50 a month. You won't miss it much and you won't be missed as a customer. Traffic will flow just fine. You'll get part of your windshield back.

And the next time someone offers you something for "free," keep walking.

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