As a college student in the early 1970’s I had a summer job as a toll collector on the Tappan Zee Bridge. Boring job but great pay. But it was clear, even then, that toll collection would become automated, at first with special lanes with those baskets you’d throw your change into (assuming you had the correct change).
By the early 80’s, New York and Pennsylvania toll authorities (which between them make up two-thirds of the U.S.’s $3 billion a year tolling industry) began experimenting with electronic toll tags, as much to reduce congestion at booths as to replace human collectors. But it was Oklahoma that introduced the first electronic toll system, The Pikepass in 1991.
Today you can travel toll roads from Maine to Illinois to Virginia and use the same E-ZPass. And Connecticut drivers… get ready, as everyone admits that tolls are in our future.
The E-ZPass technology is simple. Each “pass” contains an RFID chip which, when “pinged” by an outside reader, transmits a unique code identifying you as the pass holder. Your ID is recorded and the toll deducted from your account.
As an incentive, most systems offer E-ZPass users a discount. For example, the cash toll for cars on the Tappan Zee Bridge is $5 but E-ZPass holders only pay $4.75. The Tappan Zee even offers high-speed (35 mph) lanes that read your E-ZPass without stopping.
But gateless toll lanes are taken advantage of by some. The Port Authority estimates that 2 percent of all vehicles drive through E-ZPass lanes without paying, costing the agency about $7 million a year in lost revenue.
On the Henry Hudson Bridge linking Manhattan and the Bronx, all lanes are E-ZPass as there have been no human collectors since 2014. If you don’t have a toll-tag for the $2.54 fee, they snap a picture of your license and send you a bill for $5. But the MTA says it has been unable to collect $4 million in tolls from those who were billed.
Even law-abiding E-ZPass holders should know that Big Brother may be watching them, miles from any toll lane. The NYC Dept of Transportation uses hundreds of E-ZPass readers in Manhattan, it says, to monitor the flow of traffic. But the N.Y. American Civil Liberties Union calls that an invasion of privacy.
Combined with the millions of data points collected by NYPD license plate readers, it’s pretty hard to keep your whereabouts a secret. (Never mind that your cell phone is constantly broadcasting your location. And have you checked your Google Location History lately to see everywhere you’ve been and when?)
Your E-ZPass could even let authorities determine if you were speeding as you pass between readers, though the NY Thruway insists that’s not in the plans and wouldn’t stand up in court.
The choice is yours: pay cash, wait in long lines and remain anonymous… or get an E-ZPass, enjoy the discounts and speedy trips but leave a record of your travels.
Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien Representative Town Meeting.