Virginia doing away with E-ZPass fee


The 495 Express Lanes use an all-electronic tolling system in which drivers are required to have E-ZPass transponders. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed the bill passed by the General Assembly to eliminate the monthly fee the state charges for maintenance of E-ZPass accounts. Now, the state’s transportation department has to figure out how to do that.

The deadline for eliminating the fee is Sept. 1.

Virginia imposed the fee of 50 cents a month in September 2012 on drivers who got new transponders. Drivers who got the E-ZPass Flex transponder for the free carpooler ride in the high occupancy toll lanes were charged $1 a month. But they could get the fee waived if they used the Flex exclusively for carpooling in the 495 Express Lanes.

The Virginia Department of Transportation said at the time that the annual operating cost of the E-ZPass customer service center is $10 million, just part of the cost of running the system of transponders and accounts. Many agencies that issue E-ZPass transponders and maintain the accounts charge maintenance fees. Maryland charges $1.50 a month, but waives it for accounts used to pay at least three tolls during the previous month in Maryland.

When Virginia imposed the maintenance fee, many drivers in the D.C. suburbs expressed their displeasure. Some argued that the state should be paying account holders for helping to ease the flow of traffic through toll plazas. The reaction of other drivers was more like, “I can’t believe we’re having this debate over six bucks a year.”

The fee became an issue for drivers in the Hampton Road area this year when the Downtown and Midtown tunnels went to all-electronic tolling. With the support of the McAuliffe administration. Sen. John C. Miller (D-Newport News) introduced Senate Bill 156, which said: “No later than September 1, 2014, the Department of Transportation shall develop and implement a plan to eliminate the maintenance fees associated with electronic toll collection transponders.”

The costs of the back office operations that support the toll collection system didn’t go away. Over the next four months, VDOT has to figure out how to deal with that while ending the account charge.

“We are exploring a number of options for eliminating the monthly E-ZPass transponder fee. However, a final decision (on a plan/options) has not been made,” VDOT spokeswoman Shannon Nicole Marshall said in an e-mail.

While the elimination of the fee will be good news to those tunnel drivers in Hampton Roads, it’s also somewhat of an incentive for Northern Virginia drivers to get E-ZPasses to use the 495 Express Lanes on the Capital Beltway and the 95 Express Lanes scheduled to open early next year on I-95. Transurban, the express lanes operator, has estimated that 40 percent of Beltway drivers don’t have E-Passes, a requirement to use the all-electronic tolling system.

“Our research has shown that the monthly fee can be a barrier for folks considering getting an E-ZPass,” said Michael McGurk, spokesman for the express lanes. “We hope that eliminating the fee will encourage more drivers to get an E-ZPass so that they’re able to take the Express Lanes the next time they travel the Beltway or, in the future, the 95 Express Lanes.”

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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