Open road tolling closes gate on era at NYC-area crossings
Cash-paying drivers in the E-ZPass lane, malfunctioning gate arms, long lines and other maddening inconveniences that came with crossing an MTA toll plaza in New York City are gone for good, replaced by “open-road, cashless tolling.”
With the removal of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s last two toll plazas at the Throgs Neck and Bronx-Whitestone bridges on Saturday, all of the MTA’s nine crossings are now cashless.
Replacing the tollbooths, gates and — all too often — long lines of vehicles waiting to cross them are elevated gantries with sensors that read E-ZPass transponders and cameras that snap pictures of the license plates of cars that don’t use E-ZPass. The drivers of those cars are mailed an invoice for the toll amount.
The new system is part of a $501 million modernization of MTA bridges and tunnels that includes architectural enhancements and colorful LED lighting on bridges.
“Open road, Cashless Tolling is critical to modernizing our roadways, easing congestion, and re-imagining our transportation system for the 21st century economy,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said in a statement Wednesday.
Since introducing cashless tolling at the Queens Midtown Tunnel in January, the MTA has been rapidly rolling out the new technology at its crossings, including, most recently, the Robert F. Kennedy and Verrazano Narrows bridges. So far, the reviews from behind steering wheels have been mostly positive.
“Toll booths are a dangerous, time-consuming thing of the past,” said Tommy Gregoretti of Oceanside, who regularly crosses the Throgs Neck. “They have been replaced in so many other places. Nice to see New York finally catching up.”
Robert Sinclair Jr., spokesman for AAA’s Northeast region, said getting across the MTA’s crossings where toll booths have been eliminated has been “zip, zip, zip” — a vast improvement from the inevitable slowdowns associated with toll plazas.
“Even with the E-ZPass lanes, previously everybody had to cue up and narrow and slow down. And they had the gates, so that would throw in an automatic stop into everything,” Sinclair said “Now you just keep going. I think it’s great.”
MTA Bridge and Tunnel spokesman Christopher McKniff said preliminary data indicated that, since cashless tolling had been rolled out, peak period travel times at crossings had improved by 4 percent to 20 percent — an amount that varies depending on factors, including the length of a toll plaza and how bad traffic was there to begin with. Cuomo’s office, which has pushed for cashless tolling throughout the state, said commuters would save up to 21 hours of drive time every year.
“The benefits of Cashless Tolling on our bridges and tunnels are already being felt through enhanced traffic flow, reduced congestion and decreased commute times, making it easier for New Yorkers to get where they need to go,” McKniff said in a statement.
Bill Cramer, spokesman for the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association — a group representing toll facility owners and operators — said the trend toward cashless, or electronic, tolling began about a dozen years ago. From 2010 until 2015, the number of tolls collected electronically in the United States grew from about 68 percent to about 77 percent. Today, several states have gone completely cashless, said Cramer, including Massachusetts, Colorado and, most recently, Washington State.
“There really isn’t anyone who is building new roads, highways, bridges or tunnels almost anywhere around the world these days where they’re putting up toll plazas,” Cramer said.
McKniff said the MTA began testing cashless tolling six years ago at the Henry Hudson Bridge on Manhattan’s northern tip, to “prove out the concept in the very unique environment of New York City” before expanding it across all of its crossings. “Once it was a success and extremely popular with drivers the project was accelerated,” McKniff said.
Not only does electronic toll collection reduce traffic, Cramer said, it also reduces accidents at crossings, including from cars stopping short and being rear-ended, or suddenly changing lanes while shopping for the shortest toll booth wait.
And, Cramer said, cashless tolls are more environmentally friendly than traditional tolls because they reduce the harmful emissions from idling vehicles waiting to get through a toll plaza.
What’s not fully known is the system’s potential impact on MTA toll revenues, as it counts on non-E-ZPass customers — about 10 percent of all drivers in the region — receiving and responding to mailed invoices.
The Port Authority has cited the uncertainty about revenue collection as a key reason it has not pursued cashless tolling at most of its crossings. However, the agency did recently roll out the technology at the Bayonne Bridge.
During the pilot project on the Henry Hudson Bridge, about one-third of drivers who received a bill in the mail for the toll never paid it, according to MTA data.
However, the MTA said since cashless tolls were rolled out permanently at the bridge late last year, lost revenue from unpaid tolls has been more than made up for by fines collected by those who paid them late — resulting in a revenue collection rate of 104 percent. The MTA grants drivers 30 days to pay a toll before charging a $5 late fee — already more than the cost of some tolls. Drivers who don’t pay can eventually accrue fines of up to $100, or worse.
“Sooner or later, you’re going to get your license suspended,” said MTA Board member Mitchell Pally, of Stony Brook. “The hope is, obviously, that you will pay before you get to that point.”
Despite the potential to drive up revenue with late fees, Cramer encouraged patience with drivers adapting to the new technology, and said agencies should focus their efforts on better ways to reach drivers to let them know what they owe.
“We really want people to be using the road and paying for what they use,” Cramer said. “So we’re trying to work with customers more than treating them like an instant violator.”
The MTA has encouraged drivers to sign up for E-ZPass, which they say is not only more convenient than paying by mail, but cheaper. Tolls at MTA crossings cost about 30 percent to 60 percent more for non-E-ZPass customers. MTA officials said, since rolling out cashless tolling, E-ZPass registrations have steadily climbed and are now at a record high, accounting for about 90 percent of all toll payers.
The new toll system also comes with a bit of a learning curve, especially for drivers who don’t keep their E-ZPass tag mounted on their windshield at all times. At some of the MTA’s crossings, the new toll gantries are in different locations than the toll plazas used to be — catching some drivers, like Luigi Mondi, off guard.
While crossing the RFK bridge at night recently, Mondi said he didn’t realize he had passed the gantry without his E-ZPass tag in place until it was too late. “So I did wind up having to pay the bill [by mail],” said Mondi, of Dix Hills, who called cashless tolls “super great” despite that experience.
McKniff said the locations of the toll gantries were chosen based on a number of factors “including efficiency of construction, safe traffic flow during and after construction” and equipment configuration requirements.
The ranks of MTA toll-enforcement officers will be bolstered by reassigned tollbooth collectors who find themselves with no tolls to collect anymore. MTA officials said Bridge and Tunnel Officers’ duties will still include “emergency response, facility security, traffic management and safety.”
Wayne Joseph, president of the Bridge and Tunnel Officers Benevolent Association, said his union was “on board” with the change to cashless tolling, but thought his members should be compensated for moving into a more dangerous law enforcement role.
“There’s still a need for us. Nobody’s losing their jobs or anything like that,” Joseph said. “It’s just a shift in primary function.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story reported that during an MTA cashless tolling pilot project on the Henry Hudson Bridge, about two-thirds of drivers who received a bill in the mail for the toll never paid it.