Electronic Payment and Traffic Congestion

By Scott McBride

Do the government or private development companies know what is best for the community, and if so how do they motivate the community to support their projects and policies?  There could be an infinite discourse on the purpose of government, but that is for another forum.  Let’s assume that the purpose of government is to help coordinate action for the greater good.  So how do governments and companies incent citizen and customers to adopt behaviors that are arguably in everyone’s best interest?  Specifically how do toll road operators, either governments or private companies, incent efficient use of toll roads?  I hypothesize based on anecdotal evidence that toll road operates could better utilize technology to improve traffic congestion and save costs if they used better incentives for users to adopt desirable behaviors.

I am always amazed when driving on the Mass Pike how many cars with Massachusetts plates do not have an EZ-Pass.  When I first moved here five years ago, transponders required a $26 surcharge, but they have been free since 2009, additionally users receive a $.50 discount on several toll rates.  If the transponder is free and drivers receive discounted tolls why don’t more people have EZ-Passes and where are the HOV or carpool lanes?  I frequently find myself blocked from accessing the EZ-Pass lane by vehicles waiting to receive a ticket or pay with cash.  If everyone used electronic payment, toll booths could be removed alleviating congestion and saving on toll booth maintenance and labor costs.  So what is the problem here?  Is it a question of awareness, inconvenience to drivers, or has the Mass Pike operators not optimally priced cash with a high enough premium to force adoption of electronic payment?  I think it is all of the above.  As a driving community we have not full embraced electronic payment potentially because of the limited benefit of saving $.50 a trip and still potentially deal with congestion at tolls.

So is there a better way to do it?  I have seen two other systems that better utilize technology to alleviate congestion and incentive drivers more effectively.  The 91 Express Lane in California, built and operated through a PPP has a dedicated toll lane next to the freeway that has dynamic pricing based on the time of day and requires uses of an electronic transponder.  When drivers see other vehicles speeding by on the toll road it is a much stronger incentive to obtain a transponder and pay the toll or carpool (minimum 3 occupants) and drive in the express lane for free.  Two years ago, Washington State and its 520 bridge in Seattle instituted a new toll by utilizing cameras in conjunction with transponders to alleviate the need for toll booths.  All vehicles can use the bridge, except those without transponders pay 2X!  I do not have numbers to confirm, but I would bet more drivers use electronic payment on the 520 bridge in Seattle than the Mass Pike which has had an electronic payment system at least twice as long.