New Monthly Account Fee Pushes More Md. Drivers to Quit the E-ZPass Lane

An E-ZPass transponder allows drivers to cruise through toll plazas.
An E-ZPass transponder allows drivers to cruise through toll plazas. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 23, 2009

More Maryland motorists are returning their E-ZPass transponders to the state after officials instituted a $1.50-a-month account maintenance fee July 1.

In July, 4,990 subscribers closed their accounts, up from a monthly average of 1,000, according to the Maryland Transportation Authority. Account closures hovered near average early in the year but climbed to roughly 1,600 in May and 3,000 in June.

The agency predicted the spike. "We were expecting more than what we got," spokeswoman Teri Moss said.

The fee was announced in January as part of a revenue initiative spurred by the struggling economy, skyrocketing material prices, and declining traffic and income. It is intended to help offset the $2.25 per month per account that the agency pays Affiliated Computer Services, the contractor that oversees E-ZPass, for maintenance.

The fee's impact has been modest, Moss said.

"On the surface, it looks like a large number," she said. "But if you look at the number of accounts that closed compared to the number of accounts that are active, it is really a small percentage."

There are 557,000 E-ZPass accounts in Maryland, 70,000 of which aren't active, meaning they haven't been used in a year, according to the agency.

In July, data show the net loss in E-ZPass subscribers amounted to 2,200, as 2,800 new accounts were opened.

The difference hasn't resulted in more congestion at toll plazas, said Tom Gugel, the agency's deputy director of E-ZPass operations. "So far, we haven't seen any impacts in general," he said.

Gugel suspected that some Maryland subscribers would register for E-ZPass in areas where monthly fees aren't charged. Many states in the Northeast and Midwest offer E-ZPass accounts, but the terms vary.

In Virginia, E-ZPass users are required to prepay a minimum balance of $35, plus a $25 security deposit for the transponder. The security deposit is waived if a user chooses to have the account automatically replenished each month. There is no monthly fee.

In Maryland, there's a nonrefundable transponder fee of $21, the monthly account maintenance fee of $1.50 ($18 per year) plus whatever balance a user chooses to load for tolls. There is no minimum balance; it just can't fall below zero.

About 60 percent of tolls in Maryland are paid with E-ZPass, according to Moss.

On Friday, some news reports said 40,000 subscribers had filed requests to close their Maryland accounts since January, with 19,000 requests coming in July alone. Moss said that those numbers reflect inquiries about closure, not requests to close accounts, and that she released the information to a newspaper, which she declined to identify, without explaining the difference.

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