Drivers question Virginia E-ZPass rules

Robert Thomson
Columnist September 1, 2012

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Not a day passes without some indignity to the rank-and-file population, as all levels of government scramble to find new and subtle ways to hammer beleaguered citizens’ wallets.

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. View Archive

There should be little to debate about a monthly surcharge on E-ZPass in Virginia. The correct answer is a firm no. That crack starts the slippery slope of fee hikes that could soon get E-ZPass looking not so easy at all.

The Virginia Department of Transportation needs to stop trying to sell this as another bureaucracy. If anything, it is an anti-bureaucracy we’re debating here, as this automated tool should in fact be saving VDOT a significant amount of time and staff resources.

— John P. Gaffigan,

Fairfax Station

Gaffigan wrote around the time VDOT announced it would impose a monthly fee on new E-ZPasses. I offer it to you now as a reminder that the fee system is now in effect.

All summer long, the fee plan has been infamous among the travelers who write to me. VDOT officials don’t buy the arguments that E-ZPass users are doing the state a favor by easing congestion at toll plazas, reducing pollutants or allowing the state to employ fewer humans. The officials say the back-office operation that supports the account system is sizable and costly.

Let’s review the basics and look at several questions.

Virginia E-ZPass customers who had accounts as of July 9 won’t be charged any fee until they replace a transponder or add one. Then they will be charged 50 cents a month for a standard transponder or $1 a month for the E-ZPass Flex, the switchable transponder drivers can use if they want to ride free as a carpool in the 495 Express Lanes when they open this year.

Getting the Flex early won’t hurt too much. Until Jan. 1, the monthly fee for the Flex will be the same 50 cents charged for a regular transponder.

Flex enforcement

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

The new E-ZPass Flex that you described has got to be the stupidest arrangement I have ever heard of. It will rely on the honor system of someone flipping a switch that claims three people in the car?

The same people who get onto HOV lanes 15 minutes before they are allowed? The same people running red lights? And how are police patrols supposed to see whether there are really three people in a car going 55 mph? And is there any money for increased police patrols?

— Bruce Kirschenbaum, Reston

The Flex transponder exists to help with enforcement. The toll gantry in the express lanes will pick up the signal from the transponder indicating the driver is claiming a free trip as a carpooler. It will display a signal that state police can see, so they can focus on that vehicle to make sure that at least three people are aboard. The troopers — operating under a contract between the state and the express lanes operator — also will have a device that allows them to pick up the signal directly from the transponder, so enforcement can be done while the troopers are parked or driving.

For out-of-towners

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

A vehicle containing three or more people desiring to use the HOT lanes will be required to have a new E-ZPass Flex transponder switched to the carpool setting. How will this information be communicated to the tens of thousands of drivers traveling through the region who don’t live here?

The partially covered signs I see so far near toll lane ramps merely indicate that tolls will apply unless you have three or more in your car.

— John Burpo, Springfield

Approaching the lane entrances, drivers will see signs that read:

“E-ZPass EXPRESS”

“ALL USERS

E-ZPass

REQUIRED”

“HOV3+

E-ZPass Flex

NO TOLL REQUIRED”

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or
e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com.

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