E-Z Pass turns 20

Drivers whiz through toll booths at the Bay Bridge in Annapolis. The MTA has cracked down on toll scofflaws. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

It was an innovation that made it easier for drivers cruising their way through toll gates up and down the East Coast.

Twenty years ago this month, the E-Z Pass electronic transponder made its debut — forever changing the tolling world. It allowed drivers to speed through toll lanes in multiple states and pay from a single account using one device. Some say the change was for the better, though others — namely workers who used to work the toll booths up and down the East Coast — might beg to differ.

And there are mixed views on whether the electronic transponders have made it easier for drivers to get away without paying. The Post’s Katherine Shaver recently wrote a series of stories on the state of Maryland, which was losing millions in revenue because it failed to collect tolls. The state has since acted to change the law to make it easier to catch toll cheats.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which manages the Dulles Toll Road, also has had difficulty recovering payment from drivers who cheat. Others, however, argue that electronic tolling makes it easier to catch toll scofflaws because the electronic pass can be tracked back to an actual account.

“Enforcement is a really vital issue,” said Patrick D. Jones, executive director and CEO of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA) .

Nevertheless, Jones said, the birth of the E-Z Pass was “one of the most transformative events in the history of the tolling industry.”

These days, the E-Z pass consortium includes agencies in 15 states, including Maryland and Virginia. About 25 million E-Z Pass tags are out there bringing in an estimated $7 billion in electronic toll revenue.

And the industry, prodded by federal legislation, is taking steps that eventually will allow drivers to use these regional transponders all across the country. Jones said there are also  ongoing efforts to allow folks to use the transponders to pay for parking and other items.

Lori Aratani writes about how people live, work and play in the D.C. region for The Post’s Transportation and Development team.
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