I don’t like waiting in line. For anything. It doesn’t matter if it’s a beer at a concert, a burger and fries at Shake Shack, priceless artwork at the Barnes, or the bumper cars at Morey’s Pier. Hottest new club in town? Hell no. If there’s a line, there’s little chance that I’m willing to hang out in it. And so, back in the late ’90s, when EZPass first debuted in the Philadelphia region, offering motorists a more expeditious way to proceed on toll roads, it seemed like a pretty right-thinking idea to me. More than a decade later, every time I zoom through the EZPass lanes of local toll plazas, I look over at the lines of mooks turtling through life in the cash lanes, and I wonder, What the hell are you people thinking?
No matter how those cash-only lines that you see coming back from the Shore or the Poconos may make it seem, it turns out that the majority of cars that pass through area tolls do use EZPass: sixty-six percent of cars on the Atlantic City Expressway pay with EZPass; the Pennsylvania Turnpike saw some 191 million total vehicles in 2011, and approximately 121 million—or 63 percent—of them were equipped with the technology; and in 2010, 50.4 million cars and trucks proceeded through the tolls on the four bridges overseen by the Delaware River Port Authority (Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Betsy Ross, and Commodore Barry, in case it’s a Quizzo question this week), and somewhere around 60 percent of those tolls were paid by EZPass.
So, yes, many people are drinking the EZPass Kool-Aid, but there are still many—millions—who have not signed up. Some say they just don’t use the roads enough to justify the cost of an EZPass account. But if you get your EZPass from the great, always cheaper State of Delaware, as I do, there are no added fees; the tolls are simply debited from your account, which is automatically refreshed by your credit or bank card once it falls below a certain threshold. Get your EZPass from the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, and you’re looking at a mere six-dollar annual cost. I don’t know about you, but one Saturday trip to or from the Jersey Shore would convince me that idling forever a mile from the Egg Harbor Toll Plaza more than justified any expense.
Another concern expressed by those who shun the EZPass is privacy, since the transponder transmits a unique identifier. This information is already used to calculate travel times on some highways, so when you see the digital sign above the Schuylkill announcing that it’s going to take you 22 minutes to travel four miles to Route 1, this frustrating data is calculated using the average amount of time that it took EZPass transponders to get from point A to point B on the road. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that some government agency could do some math of its own and determine that you were blazing through the Conshohocken Curve at 80. Two weeks later, you get a speeding ticket in the mail, even though there were no cops in sight. That’s not happening … at least not yet.
On the other hand, if your misdeeds go beyond traveling 80 in a 65-mph zone, you might want to stick with cash or take the scenic route. Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission spokesperson Bill Capone says that while no one in Pennsylvania is checking up on your driving habits using your EZPass data, his agency does get and fulfill requests for EZPass information on particular vehicles or drivers a few times each week from law enforcement agencies investigating criminal matters. “But it’s only for real, criminal investigations,” stresses Capone.
“A lot of this comes down to educating people who think that there are hidden costs and fees,” says P.J. Wilkins, executive director of the EZPass Group, the consortium of 24 agencies in 14 states that use the EZPass technology. “And then, yes, there are those people who are distrusting of technology. But then, believe it or not, there are also the people out there who just like the interaction with the toll collector.”
Interaction with the toll collector? Seriously? C’mon, PJ.
Yes, says Aileen, one of my Facebook friends: “For me, it’s a matter of one of those few regularly positive human experiences I used to have everyday when driving the long commute from Reading to Philly and back. I have had many toll takers over the years who became familiar, and were regularly a friendly gateway on the homeward trip. The toll takers in Morgantown smiled and most would say my name after a few years of regular contact. Do you know that when a person smiles at you and you smile back, it releases positive, healthful and safe endorphins into your bloodstream?”
Call me when the spaceship lands.
But seriously, Aileen, you’re going to have to find positive experiences someplace else, because pretty much everybody agrees that toll collectors will soon go the way of elevator operators. Talk to representatives of the local highway agencies, and everyone likes to throw around the acronym AET, which stands for All Electronic Tolling. (Creative, huh?)
The Atlantic City Expressway is poised to go the AET route by 2015, maybe as early as 2013. The Pennsylvania Turnpike will follow suit and has been steadily increasing
penalties for drivers who don’t use EZPass discounts for drivers equipped with EZPass: currently, you’ll save an average of 17 percent by choosing EZPass over cash on the PA Turnpike. And look for a bigger differential come 2013. “We did some focus groups,” says Capone. “And we found that of our current cash-paying customers, if we got the discount into the 25 percent range, this seems to be the number where people might be more inclined to switch.”
Once AET is in full effect, you’ll still be able to drive on the roads in question without an EZPass, mind you. At least for the time being. Agencies will capture your license plate and send you a toll bill via the good old United States Post Office, which seems like it’s going to outlive manned toll booths. Of course, there will be service fees, postage, probably some kind of “maintenance” or “convenience” fee involved for those of you “distrusting of technology.”