Cashless tolling is a trend. What does it mean for motorhome owners?
By Roger Marble, F399427
With more than 300 toll roads, bridges, and tunnels in the United States, it’s common for drivers to have to stop and dig out some cash. However, an increasing number of toll facilities allow fees to be paid by electronic toll collection (ETC), which often can save time and, sometimes, money. Does it make sense to sign up? The answer depends on where you travel and how much importance you place on convenience.
How An ETC System Works
Generally speaking, here’s how an ETC system works. After you establish a prepaid account with a participating tolling agency, you receive a small electronic transponder or an adhesive tag that attaches to the inside of your vehicle’s windshield. As you approach a collection point, you drive under a gantry, an antenna reads your transponder or tag, and the appropriate charge is deducted from your account. Once the balance in your account reaches a predetermined threshold, the account is replenished by charging against a credit card. If you do not have a transponder or tag, a camera photographs your license plate and you receive an invoice in the mail.
Most toll facilities charge rates based on the type, or classification, of vehicle, so when opening an ETC account, you are asked to provide vehicle information such as weight, number of axles, and height. For example, Ohio has seven vehicle classes. Class 1 includes low two-axle vehicles and motorcycles. (“Low” vehicles are under 7 feet 6 inches in height as measured over the first two axles.) Class 2 consists of high two-axle vehicles and low three-axle vehicles. Then there’s class 3 which includes high three-axle vehicles and low four-axle vehicles. Class 4 encompasses high four-axle vehicles and low five-axle vehicles; and so on.
If you tow a vehicle behind a motorhome, the towed vehicle’s license plate number should be added to your account. Some agencies require that you obtain a second transponder for the towed vehicle. For details, and to ensure such transponders are programmed correctly, contact the ETC system’s customer service center in the state where you open an ETC account.
Benefits Of ETC
A big advantage of electronic toll collection is that many locations have special ETC-designated lanes, and vehicles sometimes can pass through such lanes at normal or close-to-normal highway speeds, saving drivers time. What’s more, having an ETC account means that you can use any lane; it eliminates last-second maneuvering to get your motorhome into a cash-only lane. In addition, there’s no need to fumble around for money on those occasions when you encounter tollbooths that accept cash only.
It’s also worth noting that many ETC systems offer discounts off the cash toll rates. Even more discounts may be available for commuters, residents of a particular state, and people who make a certain number of monthly trips on a particular tolled road. However, it’s difficult to generalize about how much money RVers might save, because so many factors are involved, including the toll agency, location, miles driven, and type of vehicle. But know that using electronic tolling always offers a lower price than paying cash.
Depending on the ETC system, you may be able to open an account online, by mail, by phone, or by walking into a customer service center. Regardless, it’s best to have your transponder activated and ready to go before beginning a trip. If you apply by mail, it may take more than a week to get squared away. Even if you walk into a customer service center, there may be a delay of a day or two before the transponder is activated.
The E-ZPass Group is billed as the world’s largest toll collection program. It consists of 38 toll agencies in 16 states: Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, and West Virginia. Those states jointly use the cashless E-ZPass technology so that drivers do not have to stop, present a toll ticket, and pay. A map of the participating states, as well as information about E-ZPass toll facilities in each state, can be found at www.e-zpassiag.com/about-e-zpass/where-can-i-use-it.
Variations Within E-ZPass
Even within the E-ZPass Group, a wide range of variations exist. For example, Illinois is connected to E-ZPass, but the system in use on the Illinois Tollway is called I-Pass. In 2016, a section of Illinois Route 390 became the first all-electronic cashless tolling roadway on the Illinois Tollway; that section has no coin baskets or tollbooths. Drivers without an I-Pass must pay the toll online or by mail. Other states are sure to implement such systems, which lessen the cost of toll collecting.
In New York, a special motorhome discount, called the Thruway Motor Home Discount Plan, is based on the number of axles on the motorhome. The plan provides for a lower passenger-vehicle rate for motorhomes. Proof of motorhome registration is required.
In Massachusetts, the transition to an all-electronic tolling system began in 2012. In 2016, all the state’s toll roads, bridges, and tunnels transitioned to electronic toll collection. The program is called EZDriveMA. Equipment to read E-ZPass transponders, as well as cameras that can capture images of license plates, are mounted over the roadway. If you don’t have an E-ZPass or a registered pay-by-plate account, you receive a bill in the mail.
In North Carolina, the ETC system is called NC Quick Pass. North Carolina toll roads accept not only E-ZPass but also SunPass (a Florida ETC program) and Peach Pass (a Georgia ETC program). Therefore, by buying an E-ZPass in North Carolina, you gain access to electronic toll collection in 18 states.
For a list of E-ZPass fees and discounts by state, visit this Wikipedia page: www.goo.gl/WYAjqU.
In Florida, SunPass works on 30 toll roads and bridges within the state. SunPass also can be used on North Carolina toll roads that accept NC Quick Pass and on Georgia toll roads that accept Peach Pass. Likewise, Peach Pass works on Florida and North Carolina toll roads. Be sure to register your license plate on your ETC account to ensure compatibility.
Also, the ETC systems in Kansas (K-Tag) and Oklahoma (Pikepass) are compatible with each other. Officials are working to make K-Tag compatible with the Texas turnpikes and with SunPass in Florida.
A number of states have ETC systems that do not share coverage with toll facilities in other states.
Because every motorhomer’s situation is different, some research will be required for you to determine whether an ETC system — one that covers multiple states, or a single state — might be beneficial. Some agencies charge a sign-up fee and some don’t. Some require just a deposit for the transponder (in some cases refundable), while others charge a monthly or annual fee. Required minimum account balances also vary. With many states and agencies involved, the rules, fees, and other costs are subject to change.
For many RVers, the primary reason for enrolling in an ETC program is not the money saved, but the convenience it affords.
- No need to search for loose change.
- No waiting in lines where people are paying cash.
- Special lanes allow users to pass through at posted highway speeds.
- Discounted fares on many turnpikes, bridges, and tunnels.
- Transponders are easy to install; no tools required.
- Helps reduce emissions, conserve fuel, and ease traffic congestion.
- Accounts can be reviewed online.
- Users of E-ZPass can open an account with the state that provides the best deal.
- Prepaid account balances (usually about $20) do not pay interest.
- If you are registered for more than one ETC system, the correct transponder must be in place for the system you are using.
- Accounts require up-to-date vehicle type and license number (changes can be made online, however).
New Hampshire: www.ezpassnh.com
New Jersey: www.ezpassnj.com
New York: www.e-zpassny.com
North Carolina: www.myncquickpass.com
Rhode Island: www.ezpassritba.com
West Virginia: www.transportation.wv.gov/Turnpike/EZPass
Good To Go(Washington state)
Palmetto Pass(South Carolina)
Interoperability Efforts Continue
E-ZPass. SunPass. Peach Pass. TxTAG. FasTrak. Express Toll. Those are but a few of the electronic toll collection systems operated by more than 100 toll agencies in the United States. (Canada, on the other hand, has far fewer tolling facilities, and most of those involve tolls for bridge or ferry crossings, not roads.) Although some systems “talk” to one another and recognize one another’s customers, many do not. And that can be frustrating for toll-paying motorists, such as RVers, who travel through different parts of the country.
The proposed solution, a nationwide electronic toll collection system, received a big boost in 2012 when Congress enacted and President Barack Obama signed the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, known as MAP-21. It set an October 2016 deadline for all toll facilities on federal-aid highways to implement a system that provides for interoperability. In other words, customers could open one account that would allow for payments at any participating toll facility in the country.
But the deadline passed with no national system in place. What’s more, the federal law did not specify who should work out the details of such a system, or how.
IBTTA Says It’s Complicated
“We want to emphasize the extremely complex nature of this undertaking,” said a September 2016 white paper from the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA), which represents toll facility owners and operators and the businesses that serve them.
IBTTA has taken the lead in the interoperability effort. The association is bearing half the $2.3 million cost (the U.S. Federal Highway Administration is paying the other half) to test three interoperability protocols, one of which could serve as the national standard. Results of the tests are expected later this year.
“We are very hopeful that this testing process is going to reveal a clear protocol,” said Patrick D. Jones, IBTTA executive director and CEO. IBTTA’s board of directors will review and consider the results of the testing. It’s unclear when a national system might be implemented.
What is clear is that there will be costs — for toll operators and possibly customers — associated with adopting a new system. “It would be akin to trying to reissue credit cards to everybody on a specific date. It’s a giant logistical issue,” said Neil Gray, IBTTA’s government affairs director. “Working out the business end of this with 35 states that have toll facilities is complicated.”
John Johnston, Associate Editor