Great news. Now you can use your toll booth transponder to pay for Big Macs. Just pick up your order at a participating McDonalds in California’s Orange County and scoot through. The Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) will pay the tab and debit your prepaid account. If you don't already use the automated toll collection technology known as FASTRAK, it makes you want to, doesn't it?
At least the TCA offers a carrot along with its stick. Other toll authorities only use the stick, charging automated toll customers less than cash customers. The New Jersey Turnpike, for example, just increased truck tolls 8% for E-ZPass customers and 13% for cash customers. With that kind of inducement, more and more companies and individuals will open toll accounts. Unfortunately, they will all be in for a nasty surprise.
When toll authorities reach a critical mass of customers paying tolls electronically, most will switch to toll structures that vary by the time of day. For truckers, that will mean no more or less than another hand in the company till.
Sometimes they call it "value pricing." Sometimes they call it "congestion pricing." Toll authorities and PR spin people sometimes call it "discount pricing." The "discount" is for using the toll road at off-peak hours. Usually, however, tolls have been increased and at best the "discount" is the toll you've been paying all along.
The idea, they say, is to encourage toll road use at off-peak hours, thereby alleviating rush-hour congestion. The idea is a favorite among traffic planning types, particularly those who work for toll authorities. For the most part, they really believe it will work. If you want to read the traffic planner's side of things, go to the Intelligent Transportation Society of America's Value Pricing resource page on the web at www.itsa.org
But however they spin it and whatever they call it, it remains a tax imposed on vehicles caught on toll roads at the wrong time. It will be similar to most High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, which do nothing to ease traffic; they merely reward people -- usually family members -- who ride together in any case.
But if congestion alone doesn’t discourage rush-hour driving, why does anyone think higher tolls will? People who drive off-peak do so not by choice but because that's what they're commitments require. Value pricing will simply reward them and tax the rest of us -– especially truckers -- who don't get to chose when we drive.
And rest assured: whether or not you get your own toll transponder, you will soon be paying more at a toll authority near you.