E-Z Pass

The AutoSlash team isn't fond of tolling (especially all-electronic tolling) because of the compliance burden and cost incurred by vehicle renters. In areas with electronic tolling, those renters who desire to use toll roads have to pay not only the tolls but also the rental car companies for a vehicle equipped to pay tolls. The State of Virginia slowly joined the fast-track to the Fee Detective "Hall of Shame" with their newest form of dynamic, electronic tolling on Interstate 66 just outside of Washington, D.C.

Transportation issues in Northern Virginia are not new. The debate on transportation infrastructure and financing was well underway when I lived there at the beginning of the millennium, shaping multiple regional elections. And for any observer, the newest "Express Lane" option on Interstate 66 truly separates the haves and the have-nots. 

  • Drivers can stay in the normal traffic lanes and avoid tolls, or
  • Drivers can enter the Express Lanes and pay the dynamic tolls that started on December 4, or
  • Drivers can enter the Express Lanes as an HOV vehicle and avoid the tolls (with restrictions).

How much are the dynamic tolls? During rush-hour periods, the toll for the new Express Lanes inside the Capital Beltway (I-495/95) has frequently exceeded $40 for the 10-mile stretch. Paying these tolls requires an E-ZPass toll transponder, and the group running E-ZPass seemed pleased that the tolls raised over $100,000 per day in the first four days' of rush hour traffic, highlighting the massive revenue grab as a major news item on their website.

We're sure the other 15 states that comprise the E-ZPass system are interested in the sustainability of these tallies! In fact, the toll was still periodically exceeding $46 months after adoption!

And in a more absurd development, legislation proposed in the Virginia House of Delegates has proposed charging tolls in both directions -- the congested side of the highway (eastbound in the morning, westbound in the afternoon) and the free-flowing side -- as a matter of "fairness". The House of Delegates' definition of "fairness" ostensibly equals "new revenue source".

The Virginia Secretary of Transportation seems to believe this is a great system:

As long as people are willing to pay, that is what will drive the tolling ... No one has to pay a toll. You simply could have put another person in your car and avoid a toll.”

What's the Big Deal?

We're not going to say a politician's wrong but there are few items of note. 

  1. If the toll system is about "Willingness to Pay" and raising maximum funds to pay for other transportation alternatives, then an auction for the private use of the lanes might better meet the actual stated goal. However, an innovative solution to the stated goal would end many political careers.
  2. Avoiding the toll isn't as simple as putting another person in the car; the user has to have another occupant and an E-ZPass Flex transponder set to HOV.
  3. E-ZPass Flex is a concept that only exists in Virginia and is not the default E-ZPass. It's only valid on three segments of Virginia roads among the entire 16-state E-ZPass system and even has to be traded in (or another fee is due) if it's not used enough for HOV traffic.
  4. The probability that a rental car is equipped with an E-ZPass Flex is as close to zero as one can get

A business group or family in a rental car is simply not a part of the State of Virginia's calculations at all. Even a car-ful of occupants can't avail themselves of the "High Occupancy Toll" lanes without possession of a State of Virginia-issued E-ZPass Flex device (and use once every six months). A minivan of entrepreneurs or tourists to D.C. along that I-66 corridor in a rental would face the choice of:

  • Remaining in the very slow lane or
  • Paying the full toll to use the Express Lane with a traditional E-Z Pass. 

And the inability of visitors to benefit from this HOV provision mirrors why rental car consumers tend to face excessive tax and fee burdens at airports. Individuals flying in are assumed to be visitors without votes and fantastic "revenue sources"! And when it comes to a multiple-state system designed for interoperability and standards, Virginia has (wittingly or unwittingly) ensured local residents have access to a more "robust" transportation system than visitors by adopting their own twist on an otherwise "standardized" system.

 

Fees, facility charges, and taxes got you confused and/or down? The Fee Detective can explain. Send your query to feedetective@autoslash.com and we'll feature your question in an upcoming post.

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