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Another victim of the coronavirus: Cash tolls

Maryland is accelerating its shift to all-electronic tolling

A toll booth on Interstate 95 before the Fort McHenry Tunnel in March. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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Say goodbye to the toll booth.

Cash payments will not return to Maryland toll facilities after the coronavirus emergency is lifted, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced last week, officially marking the end of the traditional tollbooth in the state.

In mid-March the Maryland Transportation Authority temporarily eliminated the cash option at the Bay Bridge and all tolling facilities in the state to limit interaction between drivers and toll collectors and promote social distancing during the health crisis.

Officials now say the implementation of all-electronic tolling during the pandemic was an “operational success” and the state is ready to make the change permanent.

Maryland had started the transition to all-electronic tolling last fall, but the full conversion was not expected to happen for a few years.

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The state had already announced in May that the Bay Bridge crossing would remain cashless after the pandemic. Hogan’s announcement extends the permanent change to the rest of the state’s facilities, including: the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway (Interstate 95), Fort McHenry Tunnel (I-95), Baltimore Harbor Tunnel (I-895) and Nice/Middleton Bridge (Route 301).

The cash option was eliminated at the Francis Scott Key Bridge (I-695) in Baltimore and the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge (Route 40) in Harford and Cecil counties last fall. The state’s two other toll roads, and its newest, the Intercounty Connector and 95 Express Lanes, were already electronic payment systems.

During the coronavirus pandemic, vehicles without an E-ZPass transponder have been charged the cash rate via mail instead of the more expensive video tolling rate. The MdTA said it will continue to charge all cars without an E-ZPass the cash rate for the remainder of the state of emergency.

Toll rates vary depending on the facility. In some locations, such as the Bay Bridge, E-ZPass rates are lower than cash or video toll rates.

Tolling experts say the all-electronic tolling systems help decrease congestion and reduce car emissions. By spending less time idling and stopping to pay a toll, drivers also save fuel and time.

“Permanent all-electronic tolling is the latest step we have taken to save motorists time and money,” Hogan said in his announcement. “By combining innovation, safety, and savings, this truly is a win-win for the state government and for everyone who travels in our great state.”

The announcement comes as the MdTA faces significant and long-term revenue losses because of the pandemic. The authority said in June that it anticipated $101 million in lost revenue for fiscal 2020 and was forecasting a $111 million drop in revenue this fiscal year, or roughly 16 percent less than the previous forecast.

To help cover the losses, the authority is delaying completion of an extension of the 95 Express Lanes by one year and is deferring the replacement and purchase of additional equipment such as computers. Officials said the authority has saved money by not funding vacant positions and not renewing 44 temporary toll collection contracts.

Chesapeake Bay Bridge tolls to remain cashless

Nearly 1.4 million drivers have an E-ZPass Maryland. The transponders are free, and drivers can sign-up to get one at Transponders are also available at Giant Food stores and Weis Markets.

A new pay-by-plate option is expected to go live later this year to allow tolls to be automatically billed to credit cards at the same rate paid by cash customers, except for trips on the Intercounty Connector and 95 Express Toll Lanes.

Drivers may notice some work near toll facilities where crews will be removing tollbooths. Work near the Bay Bridge toll plaza this summer, for example, included removal of all toll booths and the road’s reconstruction.

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The state will also be demolishing the remaining four toll plazas, though it may take a few years to complete that work and to create “highway-speed travel lanes” in those areas.

The work will begin at the Fort McHenry Tunnel next year, officials said, and will be followed with work at the Nice/Middleton Bridge and the JFK Highway and Baltimore Harbor Tunnel.

“With this system now permanent, stopping to pay tolls in Maryland is a part of history,” MdTA Executive Director Jim Ports said.