Summer Drivers, Get Thy E-ZPass

May 1, 2007

With the addition now underway of the Indiana Toll Road to the Eastern E-Z Pass electronic toll system, only a foot-dragging Ohio will prevent motorists from driving through countless tollgates from the Maine Turnpike to northwest of Chicago without having to stop for toll ticket or payment. And Ohio now says it’s making the investment to join the 12-state, 22-agency consortium by sometime in 2009.

E-Z Pass had its beginnings in 1987 in metropolitan New York-New Jersey, where you can hardly go to the corner grocery without having to ante up road or bridge toll coins. It’s been operational for more than 15 years in the pioneering systems around New York City. As of 2005, there were more than 11 million E-Z transponders in use.

Here’s how it works: you obtain a transponder associated with your car’s license plate upon deposit of cash or, more commonly, credit card authorization for a given amount, say $50. Um, yes, tolls have gone up hugely in recent years. You hang the transponder on your inside rearview mirror where electronic readers at gates tab you in and out. Each state or agency “sells” its own passes, but they are interchangeable from one jurisdiction to another. Tolls are debited against your account and, at least in some systems, a monthly statement is issued detailing the debits. When the balance gets low, either on demand or automatically, the debit authorization is renewed.

So equipped, you whip through toll gate “express lanes” without having to stop for a chit or pay when you exit. E-Z Pass covers toll bridges, toll roads and turnpikes in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Greater Chicago and even the Peace Bridge from Buffalo to Ontario. An augmented E-Z also works for parking lots at metro New York City’s JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports as well as the Albany airport.

Some other parts of the country, Rhode Island and Florida (Sunpass) for instance, have their own electronic pass systems for tolls, but for whatever reasons have not joined the E-Z consortium. According to an E-Z Web site map, Connecticut and Vermont have no toll roads (I wonder what happened to the Merritt Parkway?).

In some congested Eastern areas, local commuters get special incentives for their E-Z passes. For all motorists in these areas, congestion at toll plazas is reduced, with consequent savings in fuel use and pollution. Overall, bridge and toll road authorities are surely saving a ton in employment costs with reduced need for tollgate attendants.

For cross-country motorists, the biggest factor is convenience. I’ve observed a mile-long line for westbound cars at the tollgate where the Pennsylvania Turnpike ends at the Ohio line. So there is an incentive for motorists to join E-Z Pass who don’t live in any of the Northeast states but travel through them from time to time.

However, the buying-in system is less than ideal. If you’re planning on a trip through any of these toll areas, PLAN AHEAD as the sign says, and sign up on-line. I found it impossible to buy an E-Z Pass on the road, passing through New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine last September. Last month, ditto for the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which had E-Z Pass kiosks in service plazas—but their machines wouldn’t accept my ten-digit Michigan driver’s license nor my home zip code when I tried to sign up for an instant E-Z Pass transponder.

And if you’re crossing through Ontario, beware of the “secret” toll road, 407, around congested Toronto. It’s all-electronic and there not only is little warning, there is no place to pay the toll or even buy a temporary transponder. The privately owned toll road is not part of the E-Z system, nor does it seem to be monitored by Ontario authorities. Instead you get zinged with an outrageously hefty toll plus added fees when your license number is tracked. Yankee, Go Home, or at least stay off our secret toll road.

The Libertarians won’t like this, but electronic license plates are coming your way, sure as shootin’. England already has such a system, and London uses it to assess a hefty fee on those drivers who dare to drive into the central city. New York City is talking about a similar charge.

The EZPass Web site for New Jersey

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