Transportation Policy

Life in the Slow Lane

The potential of a toll booth-free America

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Americans are going to be driving on toll roads a lot more in the years ahead. One of the least pleasant experiences of this form of travel is the toll booth. But it doesn't have to be this way. We can, if we want, get rid of every toll booth and toll plaza in the country.

Technology is leading the way. First came windshield-mounted transponders, like the Northeast's E-ZPass, Florida's SunPass and California's FasTrak. Transponders were first introduced merely to speed up passage through toll booths. Then engineers figured out they worked fine at highway speeds, and that plazas could be eliminated for "open-road" tolling of vehicles with transponders. Only cash-payers, off to the side, would have to queue up. This transformation has been completed on the Illinois Tollway system and is under way on Florida's Turnpike and a number of others.

Engineers are now developing new toll roads from scratch that are entirely cashless. On the Melbourne CityLink in Australia and the new toll motorway system in Santiago, Chile, you either pay by transponder, or you call in and register your license-plate number for certain days when you plan to use the toll road. They bill you when their video cameras pick out your plate number.

And in Toronto, Canada, you can drive onto Highway 407 with no transponder and no reservation. They will simply video your license plate and send you a bill. The 407 has had this system since 1997. It is one of the world's most successful new toll roads.

Why do away with toll booths? No more delays, accidents and pollution caused by long lines of waiting cars. No more need for large swathes of land for toll plazas, making it possible to fit toll roads into tight corridors where congestion relief is needed. Lower payroll costs, no buildings and no cash "shrinkage" (i.e., theft) by collectors.

Today there are only a handful of no-cash toll roads in the U.S. The half-dozen high-occupancy toll lanes now operational in California, Colorado, Minnesota, Texas and Utah are all cashless, as they have to be to make use of market pricing, with toll rates changing to reflect periods of higher and lower demand. So is the recently built Westpark toll road in Houston and Tampa's new elevated express toll lanes on the crosstown expressway. Several new toll roads in Texas are being planned as cashless, and so are planned HOT lanes in northern Virginia, Miami, Dallas and elsewhere. But I've been able to identify only two existing toll-road systems that have made firm plans and set deadlines for getting rid of all toll booths: the North Texas Tollway Authority in Dallas and the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority.

Why isn't everybody doing this, since the technology works and has been proven overseas? There are legitimate concerns to be weighed. Unless the toll road already has high transponder market share, some fraction of cash customers may simply stop using the toll road if the cash option is eliminated. There are also real costs (staffing and technology) involved in video license-plate recognition and billing. And there is the problem of what to do with all the now-redundant toll collectors, especially if they are unionized.

It is not coincidental that the pioneers in cashless tolling have been investor-owned toll road companies: the 91 Express Lanes in California, Highway 407 in Toronto, the Cross-Israel Highway, the Melbourne CityLink and Santiago's toll motorways. All of these cashless toll roads were developed by private companies under long-term public-private concession agreements.

It is also not coincidental that the public-sector toll agencies in Florida and Texas going cashless are among the most businesslike and entrepreneurial, in a public-sector industry that has historically been very conservative and in some states highly politicized.

To a company whose business is offering its customers high-quality mobility (and to public toll agencies that think and operate like businesses), going cashless and boothless is a no-brainer. One of the very first actions taken by the companies that leased the Chicago Skyway in 2005 and the Indiana Toll Road in 2006 was to introduce electronic toll collection.

Elsewhere one can sense the first stirrings of change. In recent weeks, the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and Denver's E-470 toll agency have all announced studies of going cashless. The new North Carolina Turnpike Authority is seriously considering developing its new toll roads without any toll booths or plazas.

I'm confident that the growing number of private-sector toll companies can be counted on to put their customers' interest first, by eliminating cash tolling. Since most U.S. toll roads are still operated by public-sector agencies, however, voters should demand that they phase out toll booths and toll plazas by a date certain—a decade from now should be plenty of time.

Mr. Poole is director of transportation studies at the Reason Foundation. An engineering graduate of MIT, he has advised the U.S. Department of Transportation and a number of state DOTs.

The rest of this column appeared in the Wall Street Journal, where you can read it now.

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25 responses to “Life in the Slow Lane

  1. Reason links to an article on toll booths that requires subscription. Cute. Don’t bother fixing the typo, you guys are tools.

  2. Article came up for me fine, and I am not registered.

  3. Why not go for the easier, more comprehensive, and less authoritarian approach of raising the gasoline tax instead ?

  4. Wasn’t this already blogged a few days ago?

  5. Article didn’t come up for me, either. Oh well…I could see the first 2 paragraphs of the article and it appeared to glorify the EZ-Pass and all its variants. I only have a few retorts:
    Out of state drivers.
    Government surveillance (there was an article somewhere last week about using the ez-pass data to ticket speeders).

  6. I agree. Andyinsdca has a point. The ez-pass may be quicker, but opens up a lot of holes for abuse. A simple combination of tolls, and passes would work best.

  7. I only have a few retorts:
    Out of state drivers.

    There’s this internet thingee that all the kids are using. Maybe that might be a work around there.

    Government surveillance (there was an article somewhere last week about using the ez-pass data to ticket speeders).

    Government surveillance is part of our daily lives. Radar is ubiquitous, as are video cameras in public places. We really need to fight this at the ballot box. Rational speed limits seem to be a possible solution unless you are unable to abide by even those.

  8. Oddly, it comes up for me at work. I have to agree wit the above. As long as the gub’mnt is running things, better to collect at the pump. Better, would be to privatized roads. Private companies would charge more to heavy freight trucks that do the most wear and tear to the pavement. The interstate system is in effect a massive pork project for the trucking industry. If trucks had to pay their fair share, more cargo would be shipped by train. Train lines could then afford to improve the condition of their tracks and make them even more attractive.

  9. Since you can get cell phone without disclosing your identity, I see no logical reason we can’t do this with toll passes as well. The masters in the state capitols probably won’t like it, but it could be done. RFID tags, like all servants need to be watched closely. The genie is not going to get back in the bottle.

  10. Private companies would charge more to heavy freight trucks that do the most wear and tear to the pavement. The interstate system is in effect a massive pork project for the trucking industry. If trucks had to pay their fair share, more cargo would be shipped by train. Train lines could then afford to improve the condition of their tracks and make them even more attractive.

    You are correct, sir.

  11. I see no logical reason we can’t do this with toll passes as well.

    What happens when you have run through your pre-loaded amount on the toll pass? With a cell phone, it just quits working. With a toll pass, what? Your car still works on the toll road, right?

  12. What happens when you have run through your pre-loaded amount on the toll pass? With a cell phone, it just quits working. With a toll pass, what? Your car still works on the toll road, right?

    When you exit, they photo your plate and send the bill.

  13. What happens when you have run through your pre-loaded amount on the toll pass?

    I don’t know about anywhere else but in Fla you have to prepay for the charges on SunPass and E-pass. When they were first introduced you had to keep track and make the payments to keep a credit balance.

    Now they have a feature that lets you give them a credit card number so they can just charge you a fixed rate and bring you credit balance up again.

    But tolls are always charged against your credit balance. They will never let it get to the point where you actually owe them money.

  14. Tool Booth?

  15. The trans-israel toll road mentioned in the article is an example of how such things work well, but also some of the potential problems with them.
    Work well – the road is the fastest, cleanest, best engineered, safest highway in the country.

    Works badly – the company who runs it has a bad habit of charging 100% monthly interest and obscene collection charges on unpaid bills.
    Because they rely on the DOT’s address listings for license plate numbers, as well as the regular mail, there are occasional cases of undelivered bills. Then, 8 months later, thugs show up in the middle of the night to repossess your car for thousands of shekels of unpaid debt on a bill that was originally for 18 shekels that you never got in the first place.
    This has happened several times, usually results in a court case and an out-of-court settlement for a portion of the fine, I’m sure lots of the lesser cases just pay and cut their losses (especially as so many of the cars on the road are leased company cars and thus the fines are paid by companies and not individuals).

  16. In Texas a couple years back there was a bunch of folks stealing the annual stickers off licence plates and selling them to folks who didn’t want to pay Texas the motor vehicle tax. The state solved the problem by switching over to inside-the-windshield decals by the inspection stickers.

    They will simply video your license plate and send you a bill.

    Wonder how long it’ll be before the former sticker thieves start switching license plates.

  17. LarryA: the former sticker thieves are already hard at work switching license plates; they steal the front ones at the Park and Ride lots, it can be days before someone notices. They also siphon gas outa the commuter vans. Think they’d be caught on camera? Not if the Metro Cops are in on it.

  18. Let me get this straight:

    This article sings the praises of companies that will automatically deduct unknown amounts money from your bank as you drive on roads without you even knowing it… and most of the commenters here think this is a *good* thing?

    Has nobody here ever had problems with cell phone carriers, utilities, etc. charging too much money?

    Here’s a crazy idea for a “toll-booth free America”: how about paying for roads out of our tax dollars?

    I live in a state where driving on roads are free. Sure we pay more taxes, and I am glad to pay for the privilege.

    I have also driven through states with ubuquitous toll roads and constant delays at the booths. What fast-talking huckster talked those poor suckers into toll roads in the first place?

    Guess what, the congestion problem is not the toll booths, it’s the toll roads!

  19. FUCK TOLL ROADS, unless they are privately funded. I can’t believe that this is what the imperial governmnet gives us. Why don’t we have toll schools too? Maybe that way we can usurp even more money for our scrool systems.

  20. Here’s a crazy idea for a “toll-booth free America”: how about paying for roads out of our tax dollars?

    I hope you’re talking about gas taxes.

  21. So how much will it cost to dig those road tunnels under the ATL Bobby?

    I don’t think “the private sector” will be funding those anytime soon.

  22. xrey: One problem with your suggestion is that taxes paid once a year don’t add any marginal cost to the next car trip. That may even be the reason why you, as a driver, like the idea.

    Trouble is, people will have an incentive to drive more, since taking just one more trip is essentially free. Traffic jams, pollution, extra carbon emissions. This may also be a problem with the EZ-Pass system; since time is valuable, people will drive more if they can pay quickly and conveniently. I’m not sure we need that.

    Also, Warren’s point about trucks is right. In Illinois it’s even worse since trucks get EZ-Pass and cars have to wait in line. (But that shouldn’t be surprising: this is also the town that brought you licences-for-bribes.)

  23. Not getting the whole tool rage thing here. Can you give me a little more so I can get into the role?

    It would be much easier if you were upset about having to pay cash to drive on a public road, like I-95 north of Virginia. A road I paid for long before I ever saw I-66 or I-95 and have to pay even more for it whenever I buy organic hydrocarbons AND when I drive north of Baltimore [shudders].

  24. IMS, when the Interstates were first developed, the various states were given a choice by the Feds. If a state agreed to pay a large enough share of the cost of I-n, then it could make it a toll-road. If it opted to build the road with a higher % of Federal funds, than the host state gave up its authority to impose tolls.

    As regards anonymity and the EZ-Pass model: I can buy a train ticket from a vending machine with a debit or charge card, which leave a record, or with cash*. The operators of the toll system could use a similar system, though they might prefer to have a record of who is driving on their? roads, and when.

    Kevin

    *This assumes that the mechanism in the vending machine that takes cash is actually working.

    ?Yeah, yeah. The government O-and-Oed roads are ours, not theirs. Tell that to James M. Buchannan.

  25. There is an enormous burden placed upon drivers who do not use EZ Pass nor have bank accounts, etc. This burdens interstate commerce and should be ruled unconstitutional.

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