Editorial: Time for state to go all in on cashless tolls

These systems are not a luxury, and they don’t only benefit the drivers who will use them
Shown is the cashless collection system at the Triborough Robert F. Kennedy Bridge in New York.
Shown is the cashless collection system at the Triborough Robert F. Kennedy Bridge in New York.

On Saturday morning at 3 a.m., the Bronx-Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridges into New York City said good-bye to toll booths — the last two crossings into New York City to make the switch to cashless tolling.

When they return to Albany early next year, state lawmakers should put together a farewell plan for the rest of the state’s toll booths.

These systems are not a luxury, and they don’t only benefit the drivers who will use them.

The advantages of cashless tolling — where drivers use their E-ZPass or other electronic device to record and pay tolls instead of stopping at a toll booth — are numerous and well-documented.

Cashless tolling is good for traffic congestion, good for the environment, good for the infrastructure and ultimately good for drivers’ wallets.

Since January, after  Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) bridges and tunnels were switched over, state officials estimated that the cashless tolling has saved drivers 2.1 million hours of travel time and more than 970,000 gallons of fuel, according to a report in the New York Post.

If you figure just $3 per gallon of gas, the consumer savings of the booths in just the past nine months comes to $2.91 million. Over a year, that’s almost $3.9 million in savings, not counting the increased price of gas.

And how much are those extra hours not spent commuting worth to workers, employers and families?

The pollution savings from vehicles not idling in traffic waiting to get through a toll booth are also significant. In that nine months, the cashless tolls helped reduce the amount of carbon dioxide going into the environment by 19 million pounds, the Post reported. Reducing CO2 emissions significantly helps reduce global warming and makes the air easier to breathe, cutting down on air-quality-related health issues.

The cashless toll systems also cut down on accidents, as drivers no longer are forced to cut across lanes of traffic to get into individual toll booths or to slow down suddenly, thereby reducing the opportunity for rear-end collisions.

Allowing vehicles to speed through toll booths also reduces wear and tear on the roads, as cars don’t have to continually stop and start on them, thereby saving on infrastructure repairs.

And with cashless tolls, taxpayers won’t have to pay toll collectors, of which there are nearly 1,200 full and part-time currently manning Thruway toll booths.

Massachusetts eliminated 400 toll-collector positions when it switched over to cashless tolling on the Mass Pike last year, although about half were reassigned to other tasks to reduce the impact on longtime workers.

There’s no reason for the state to hold onto these jobs when the technology is available to do their work for them in a way that saves on fuel consumption, cost and pollution.

The savings in states that have gone to cashless tolling have been significant.

In Florida, officials say they save about $10 million a year on operational costs on the southernmost portions of the Florida Turnpike, according to an article in USA Today. California expects to save $16 million over eight years just by eliminating toll booths on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Of the 34 states that have toll roads, 23 already have switched or are making the switch. And New York state has to catch up.

So why not just switch over right away? 

Couple issues.

One, the new cashless toll systems — which require equipment to scan the transponders in cars and photograph readable images of license plates to bill drivers who don’t have the devices — are expensive. We’re talking potentially hundreds of millions of dollars.

While the savings are significant, these devices are a long-term investment, not a quick budget fix.

With the state facing a potential budget deficit this coming year and with the Republican federal tax plan potentially adding to residents’ tax burdens, creating more convenience for motorists might be a hard sell in the state Legislature, especially during an election year.

Another problem, although one state officials have been addressing, is how to get those drivers without transponders in their cars to pay up when they’re sent a bill in the mail. In 2014, an estimated one-third of those who received bills didn’t bother to pay them, costing the state about $1.6 million in lost revenue. That prompted the state to increase the penalties for scofflaws to include late fees, fines and potential suspension of licenses.

The state Thruway Authority’s five-year budgeting plan doesn’t include cashless tolling, and the Legislature doesn’t have a plan in place, either.

That’s irresponsible, given the potential benefits of installing a system statewide.

The state this year must develop a plan for installing a system, including cost estimates for the devices and potential sources of revenue to pay for them. That could include federal grants, increases in state and federal gas taxes, a toll hike to motorists who use the systems, and grants and borrowing. Let’s see it all in writing before we decide to go forward.

As with the replacement plan for the Tappan Zee Bridge, taxpayers have a right to know how much this will cost, how it will be paid for and how much savings they can expect over a specific period of time.

The time for talking about cashless tolling has long passed.

It’s time for New York to join the 21st century and move ahead with a statewide system.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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