The Virginia Department of Transportation has announced its new policy on charging for E-ZPass accounts: Customers who have accounts as of today won’t be charged a monthly fee until they replace transponders or add a new one.
Drivers who get the new E-ZPass Flex transponders will eventually be charged a dollar a month to maintain those accounts. But the fee will be waived when the Flex transponder is used exclusively for carpooling on the 495 Express Lanes and the future 95 Express Lanes, VDOT said in the announcement.
All this is better than the original proposal but not ideal. Many drivers have written in to say that they object to any fee at all. My main concern has been with the possibility of charging people to use the express lanes, and particularly with the idea of forcing the informal carpoolers known as slugs to get transponders and pay for them to use the I-95 Express Lanes.
I’ll elaborate on that, but first, here are the basics of the VDOT decision:
The current account holders are okay till they get a new transponder or add one to their accounts. At that point, they will be charged 50 cents a month per new standard transponder or $1 a month for the Flex transponder.
A driver who opens a new account with Virginia after today will be subject to the 50-cent monthly fee for each standard transponder or a $1 monthly fee for the Flex transponder.
The new fee system takes effect Sept. 1.
Drivers who get Flex transponders will be charged the lower standard transponder fee of 50 cents until Jan.1, which seems fair since until the 495 Express Lanes open, there would be no place to use the Flex transponder for its intended purpose of carpooling.
But with the express lanes open at the end of the year, the monthly fee for the Flex transponder will rise to $1, with the waiver for drivers who use it exclusively for carpooling.
The $25 deposit will no longer be required for new transponders. Account holders who already paid that deposit will have have it converted to prepaid tolls when they replace transponders. Or they can get a refund if they return a transponder and close their accounts.
New customers still be be required to make a pre-payment covering $35 in tolls when opening an E-ZPass account.
Now, about those Flex transponders: You don’t need one of these specialized units if you don’t plan to carpool in the express lanes. All you need for regular travel in these tolled lanes is a standard E-ZPass.
But to help block cheaters, people who plan to travel three to a car and get the free ride need to get one of the Flex transponders with a carpool setting. That sends a signal to police monitors telling them that you’re operating a carpool.
This fee is okay for the express lanes on the Capital Beltway. These are brand new lanes. My main concern has been with the commuters who organized themselves into carpools to use the I-95 High Occupancy Vehicle lanes. They’ve been concerned all along that they were going to be charged a fee to use the now-free lanes when they were converted to HOT lanes.
Under the plan announced Monday, their monthly fees will be waived as long as they use the transponders exclusively for carpooling. However, the $1 monthly fee will apply if the Flex transponder is used in the non-HOV setting on the Express Lanes or on other toll facilities, VDOT said. The fee will also apply if the Flex is not used at all.
And here I thought “Flex” was short for flexible.
How is it flexible if the transponder has to be used in carpool mode exclusively? Many people don’t carpool every single day. Transportation experts and advisers who are concerned about easing highway congestion have been encouraging commuters to at least carpool a day or two a week, because every little bit helps.
The fee system sets up carpooling on I-95 and the Beltway as an all or nothing proposition.
VDOT Commissioner Greg Whirley said in a statement today that the plan tries to respond to public concerns about the fees while still covering the rising cost to Virginia of maintaining the accounts.
“I directed VDOT to consider several options and chose the one that was the most reasonable, splitting the costs between the customers and the toll facilities,” Whirley said. “It will help manage the demand for both standard and Flex transponders without imposing the monthly fee on existing E-ZPass customers until they need a new or replacement transponder.”
Are you satisfied with the state’s decision?