Private Roads, Rising Tolls, E-Z Pass and FasTrak -- It's a Waste of Money for an Asphalt Society We Need to Abandon ASAP
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One sector of toll-financed transportation that isn't financially floundering are electronic collection systems like the East Coast's E-Z Pass and the West Coast's FasTrak, which employ radio-frequency identification transponders to allow customers to pay tolls wirelessly to keep traffic moving, sparing them the extreme frustation of stop-and-go booths. Despite the fact that the contracting economy has slowed overall traffic, both E-Z Pass and FasTrak are enjoying increased attention and accounts.
"Bay Area FasTrak reached our one millionth account last fall," John Goodwin, spokesperson for the Bay Area Toll Authority ( BATA), which administers the San Francisco region's seven state-owned bridges, told AlterNet by phone. "Without question, it is increasing in popularity and percentage of total bridge traffic even as overall bridge traffic slowly declines. The trend lines are going in opposite direction, which is an interesting thing. The Bay Area workforce still hasn't come back to where it was in 2001, and there have been ups and downs in gas prices, as well as a series of toll increases in 2004, 2007 and 2010."
BATA actually licenses the FasTrak brand from Orange County's Transportation Corridor Agencies, the first in California to launch electronic toll collection in the '90s. It brings in around $500 million annually in the Bay Area, while annually costing around $20 million, according to BATA's FasTrak program coordinator Beth Zelinsky. Meanwhile, the Transportation Corridor Agencies' two Orange County toll roads pull down a cumulative $200 million annually, according to its 2010 annual report.
"But each agency that has a toll facility operates their own programs, the bulk of it going to pay for reconstruction of the bridges, seismic improvements and other infrastructure needs," Zelinsky explained to AlterNet by phone. "We occasionally have toll increases, but right now we have enough revenue in our forecast over the 20 to 30 years to cover our expenses."
For its part, E-Z Pass covers 24 toll agencies in 14 states, and pulls down around $5 billion a year in electronic revenue, which is about 70 percent of total tolling in the Northeast, Delaware-based E-Z Pass Group, executive director PJ Wilkins told AlterNet by phone. Its interoperable system has around 21.5 million devices in circulation, and stretches from Maine to Virginia to Illinois, and is currently looking to expand into Florida and North Carolina.
"E-Z Pass is nothing more than an interoperable system of technology," Wilkins said. "All of the money belongs to the agencies that collect the tolls. Those agencies split the operating costs based on a formula that they come up with each year."
But the electronic toll-collection "business is great," Wilkins added. And its often-controversial approach to congestion pricing is going viral in new ways. Skymeter boasts that its own technologically advanced dashboard-mounted meter promises to turn driving activity into "a validated list of financial transactions." The fact that drivers have to pay to drive to work to get paid to drive to work is a maddening but somehow inevitable post-recession circularity, and it's going nowhere.
"There is severe stress on the federal-aid highway program, and its reliability to the states is coming into question," explained Gray. "Just as the aviation taxes lapsed in July, there is a potential for similar lapse at the end of September on the federal gas tax. As vehicle miles-per-gallon has increased, there has been declining revenue derived from fuel taxes -- which was last increased in 1993 to its current rate of 18.4 cents a gallon. There is a universal acceptance that fuel taxes have not kept pace with inflation, yet there is very strong political opposition to any efforts to increase the current rate. Alternative fuels and the potential of electric vehicles which would pay no user fees under current revenue mechanisms are also of concern."