Dear EarthTalk: Has the use of E-ZPass and similar programs to facilitate faster highway toll-paying cut down on traffic jams and therefore tailpipe pollution? Why do we need tolls at all?
— Dianne Comstock, New York, NY
Yes, E-ZPass and similar programs have been a boon to both participating drivers and the environment by reducing or eliminating idling and traffic back-ups at toll booths. Maybe that’s why 25 U.S. states either participate in E-ZPass or have their own similar systems (FasTrak in California, EXpressToll in Colorado, SunPass in Florida, etc.) to speed up highway travel and reduce pollution.
A study conducted in 2000 to evaluate the New Jersey Turnpike Authority ‘s E-ZPass electronic toll collection system found that toll plaza delay had been reduced by about 85 percent overall for a total savings of more than two million vehicle-hours per year. Passenger car drivers saved a total of 1.8 million hours per year, while truckers saved almost 300,000 hours. The system’s “reduced queuing” decreased overall fuel consumption on the state’s turnpike system by some 1.2 million gallons per year and cut emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—a key component of smog—by 0.35 tons per day.
Maryland’s Department of Transportation is about to take the concept a step further by installing express toll lanes along the a congested eight mile stretch of Interstate 95 north of Baltimore. Once the project is complete, drivers will be able to either zip through the express lanes to pay an electronically collected toll, or save their money and instead suffer through the congestion in the free, general-purpose lanes.
The toll amount will vary depending on the time of day and traffic conditions and will be assessed automatically via existing E-ZPass transponders or by photo capture of drivers’ license plates. Unlike existing E-ZPass-type systems in the U.S., there will be no penalty or fine for entering the express toll lane without a transponder—a bill for the toll will just be mailed to the address on file with the car’s registration. The new cutting edge express toll lanes in Maryland should be operational by 2014.
Why do we need tolls at all? Their original purpose was to raise funds for highway upkeep in a way that places the burden on the users of the roads and not simply on local taxpayers who may not even take to the highway or may do so only minimally. After all, a large percentage of highway traffic is trucks and other vehicles “just passing through,” often for commercial purposes. And environmentalists saw tolls as a way to discourage individual automobile usage, even make it unpleasant enough to hasten the day that people would begin to embrace a serious commitment to public transit. In that sense, it could be argued that E-ZPass and similar systems, in making tolls more bearable, could undermine the realization of that dream.
Given that the private automobile as our main mode of transportation is likely to be around for some time to come yet, it certainly behooves us to green up the experience as much as possible. With electric cars, plug-in hybrids and other alternative fuel vehicles poised to come on strong in coming years, we certainly seem to be moving in that direction. But let’s not lose sight of the incredible benefits that public transportation could provide if we could just get our elected officials to pay it more than lip service.