States such as Colorado, which has toll road E-470, are at the forefront of the electronic tolling movement. (Jessica Carson)

John Townsend, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, didn’t remember blowing through a tollbooth on a Friday evening in September, despite an official letter from the E-ZPass Maryland Service Center charging him with the infraction. The note included a bill for $3.25 in unpaid tolls, plus a stern warning: Failure to pay could result in additional penalties, suspension of his car registration and, finally, a collection agency on his tail.

After consulting his travel calendar and determining his family’s movements on that fateful night, he cracked the mystery. His son had driven the car on Maryland’s Intercounty Connector, an all-electronic toll road. According to Papa Townsend, his child’s defense was, “I didn’t know that was a toll road.”

The nation’s next generation of roads is paved in asphalt and confusion. As the toll-collecting setup transforms into unmanned lanes with electronic payment systems, cash is becoming as useless as wampum; the main currency is the transponder. Toll plazas are also disappearing, with streamlined arches kicking the clunky concrete stations to the curbside. Toll collectors are also facing extinction, joining lamplighters, pinsetters and switchboard operators on the island of obsolete occupations.

“This is the latest road hazard you have to worry about,” said Townsend. “If you don’t know how to negotiate the toll roads, you’re just adding headaches, cost in administrative fees and shock when the letter comes in the mail.”

On Thanksgiving, the busiest travel day of the year, AAA estimates that 43.6  million travelers will drive at least 50 miles from their homes. Most likely, a significant number of pilgrims will cruise the 5,365 miles of toll roads that doodle through 35 states. To reach Grandma’s holiday table in Connecticut, for example, a Washington-based grandkid will pony up in Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and New York, but not the Constitution State, which abolished tolls in the 1980s. With the struggling economy breathing down legislators’ backs, the free joy ride could soon become a relic as well.

(Brandon Reese for The Washington Post)

To avoid a humbug drive that can sour any sweet potato pie, we asked the experts for advice on navigating the 21st-century circuit of roads. They offered money-saving tips and stress-reducing guidance and even inspired a holiday gift idea: Surprise your loved one with a transponder, the St. Christopher of toll roads.

Bye-bye, toll collectors

We can thank the British for the tradition of Thanksgiving and blame them for toll roads. If only we could have combined the two and set up a payment system in turkey leftovers.

In the United States, the first routes requiring a penny in the bucket appeared in the late 1700s, in the commerce-rich states of Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut. In the 1920s, tolls helped subsidize the infrastructure boom from sea to shining sea. Today, 104 toll agencies make sure that we pay for the roads beneath our wheels.

Toll-collecting as we know it — reduced-speed lanes, a last-minute scramble for change, a sometimes pleasant exchange with the collector — all changed in 1989. That year, Dallas went big and bold with the country’s first electronic tolling system, the Dallas North Tollway. In 2010, authorities completely phased out manual stations on the 32-mile stretch from downtown Dallas to the town of Frisco. Florida and Colorado are also at the forefront of the techno movement, with many other states, such as Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia, close behind.

“In the future, many more agencies will convert to all-electronic tolls,” said Jim Ely, vice chairman of toll services at HNTB Corp., an infrastructure consulting firm. “To have to stop and pay cash just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Saves time, eradicates lines. Can electronic tolls also remind people to turn off their directional signals? Probably not, but the cashless systems are safer. For example, replacing traditional plazas with gantries, overhead spans mounted with scanners and video cameras, eliminates dangerous obstructions and behaviors, such as the chaotic lane dance of cars. They’re also more efficient: Manual collectors can process 200 to 400 cars per lane per hour, a fraction of the supermachine’s pace of 2,200 per hour. And faster: Cars zip through e-tolls at highway speeds. And cheaper to operate: A potentially sensitive subject, but Ely said, “On every conversion I am aware of, toll agency management worked with their toll collection staff to find other employment or different positions with the agency.” For instance, on Florida’s Turnpike, some of the 300 affected employees were reassigned to other jobs.

Although the toll road revolution is certain, it won’t be a Terminator takeover. Many sites are mid-conversion. You might come across one with electronic lanes in the middle and a few operator-run booths in the wings. Or a row of coin-accepting baskets, but no one to change a buck for four quarters. In New Jersey and Illinois, I idled before the maw of the toll with no food to feed it, despite a thorough search of pockets, bags and the back seat. I had only one choice: Put a foot on the accelerator and go.

But driving the future while I was still in the past cost me — $25 for two tolls.

Video tolls and transponders

When you receive a letter describing your transgression at the tollbooth, your first response is denial. Why would I be driving on a New Jersey toll road, in a rental car with Virginia plates, at 1:57 a.m.? Then a slow realization begins to dawn: Oh, right, I was in Atlantic City that weekend. Next, reality hits: I owe how much? And then self-reflection. In this final phase, you’ll think about what you should have done differently. This is where I can help: I call it the $18 Penalty Fee Lesson.

To avoid any charges or conundrums, avoid toll roads. Some GPS devices and programs, such as, can map out a toll-free route. Trapster, an online and mobile service that alerts drivers to road hazards, has a similar function.

Of course, back roads can be more time-consuming and head-scratchingly confusing. Chandra Bhat, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas at Austin, says that travelers need to weigh the cost of travel against the value of time and reliability. A vacationer in the mood for a leisurely canter through the countryside, for instance, might not mind a slow, circuitous route; a family with a two-day pass to Disney World, however, will begrudge every stoplight and school crossing.

“If you’ve invested a good bit of money in your trip,” said Bhat, “you don’t mind paying an additional amount if you can get there faster.”

If you frequent certain roads, such as Interstate 95 or Florida’s Turnpike, purchase a transponder. E-ZPass, for example, covers 14 states, from Maine to Virginia to Illinois, and is available by phone and online and at transportation service centers and a variety of retailers (depending on the issuing state), such as AAA Mid- Atlantic, Giant and Wegmans. In Florida, the SunPass portable and mini-transponders cover the 460-mile turnpike, including the 47-mile all-electronic section in South Florida; they are sold online, by phone and at turnpike service plazas and such stores as Publix supermarkets and CVS. As with a GPS unit, you can transfer the gadget between your various vehicles, including a rental car. However, before you set off on your adventure, make sure that you register the additional car to your account, if necessary.

If you prefer to skip the transponder, then get ready to say “cheese” to the video toll. As you drive beneath the gantry, cameras will snap a picture of your license plate. The agency will send an invoice to your residence.

“This is not a violation,” said Neil Gray, director of government affairs at the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association. “There’s no implication of being bad. You were just choosing your method of payment.”

The video tolling fee, however, is more expensive than the amount charged to a transponder, based on the expense of tracking you down. Up to a third more, according to Gray. In the case of AAA’s Townsend, he paid 150 percent extra for two tolls.

If you rent a car, the options still revolve around transponders and video tolling, but with a few twists. Some companies rent the gadgets for a daily fee, plus the cost of the tolls. The charges are automatically applied to your credit card. A number of agencies preemptively equip their vehicles with transponders or a similar drive-through payment system. The renter can activate the mechanism at his or her discretion. (To flip the switch, you might simply open the transponder box or cruise through a cashless lane.)

Avis and Budget, for instance, suited up their vehicles with transponders that foot the bill for E-ZPass, TxTag in Texas and Florida’s SunPass. The company charges $2.95 per day (with a maximum charge of $14.75 per month), plus tolls. Enterprise Holdings’s Alamo, Enterprise and National outlets use TollPass video monitoring, which works in Northern California, Colorado, Texas and Florida. Renters pay $3 per day of usage (with a $15 ceiling), plus tolls.

“You pay for what you use, but nothing more,” said Enterprise Holdings spokeswoman Laura Bryant.

But here’s the $18 catch. Some roadways do not accept the rental car companies’ video tolling programs. The toll agency will cite the rental car firms for the violation. The companies, in turn, transfer the liability — a bundle of fees, including unpaid tolls, toll authority fines and contractual fees — to you-know-who. In May, on a dark and lonely road in New Jersey, I was that who.

To beat the surcharge, use a transponder or visit the toll authority’s Web site and pay online. Just remember to jot down the toll station and rental car license plate number. Though I came up short of coins on the Illinois Tollway, I paid online within seven days and never had to fear the letter.

And may I never see one again.


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