Keep the Change: The End of Cash Tolling Is ‘Inevitable’

The Ft. McHenry toll plaza along Interstate 95 in Baltimore. WTOP photo

For reasons that elude most policymakers and transportation analysts, many motorists refuse to get an E-ZPass transponder, opting instead to queue at every toll plaza to hand cash to a human toll-taker.

That option is likely to disappear in the not-too-distant future.

Even before the COVID-19 crisis struck, Maryland was already chipping away at the cash option:

  • The Key Bridge, on the eastern edge of the Baltimore Beltway, and the Hatem Bridge, which carries U.S. 40 traffic between Harford and Cecil counties, no longer have human toll-takers;
  • The Bay Bridge went cashless temporarily as part of the Department of Transportation’s push to finish a lane resurfacing project on the westbound span; and
  • Newer projects, like the Intercounty Connector and the I-95 North Express Toll Lanes, have never offered the ability to pay in cash

“This crisis is going to accelerate a process that was already happening,” said Del. Alfred C. Carr Jr. (D-Montgomery), a member of the House Health and Government Operations Committee. “It’s happening not just in Maryland but in a lot of states. This will just speed it up.”

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) directed the Maryland Transportation Authority to pull its toll-takers off the job on March 17 in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19. With the virus continuing to spread, no date has been set to restore the cash option.

Meanwhile, motorists who have E-ZPass accounts will continue to pay tolls electronically; those who don’t will get a bill in the mail.

The state has distributed more than 2 million transponders, and 81% of toll transactions in Maryland are paid via E-ZPass, said Kelly Melhem, a Transportation Authority spokeswoman.

Hogan eliminated the sign-up charge and the monthly administrative fee to encourage their use.

While some motorists prefer to use cash, critics say the practice wastes time and fuel, clogs the road and fouls the environment.

“I don’t understand why people don’t get an E-ZPass,” said James F. Ports Jr., the authority’s executive director.

“It’s so convenient. It’s better for the environment. It absolutely speeds up your travel experience. I don’t see where there’s a downside, but for some reason many people do not have it. And it kind of boggles my mind.”

Some motorists who prefer to line up and pay cash see the E-ZPass transponder as a government tracking device.

“I hesitate to say we should get rid of [cash tolling] entirely, only because people are a little freaked out about being tracked wherever they go,” said Sen. Justin Ready (R-Carroll). “And they still have people who like to pay cash for things.”

Ready concedes the demise of cash tolling is inevitable.

“We are becoming a more digital society,” he said. “This whole COVID thing is probably going to make us rethink a lot of things.”

Asked about tracking concerns, Ports said: “I’m not sure what they’re concerned about, because we’re not checking where you’re going.”

A leading state lawmaker said it would be “smarter” for Maryland to end cash tolls permanently.

“I think we should go to cashless. I really do,” said Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), chairman of the House Environment and Transportation Committee. “It’s a very quick and efficient way to collect tolls.”

When motorists who don’t have an E-ZPass transponder drive through a toll plaza, a camera photographs their license plate and they get a bill in the mail for the toll plus a 50% surcharge. Ports said the surcharge — $2 on a $4 toll, for example — is necessary to pay for the steps officials must take to locate motorists, who include people from outside Maryland.

“It’s a much more difficult process for our folks to go through,” he said. “More time-consuming and more work for us.”

Drivers who wish to avoid the surcharge can use “pay by plate,” a program that allows people to register a credit or debit card with the state. Or they can pay the toll online before the state sends the bill.

Carr urged the state to adopt a system similar to Massachusetts, which has a low penalty for people who don’t pay tolls on time.

John Townsend II, head of governmental affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said he “can’t imagine” states forcing toll-takers to interact with hundreds of motorists a day until coronavirus fears have completely subsided.

“It may be the precursor, and a harbinger of things to come, in terms of cashless tolling across the country,” he said, “especially across the E-ZPass network.”

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