The Gift That Keeps on Taking

Hope someone kept the receipt for the E-ZPass system.
By Charlie Arlinghaus

It’s January already. Time to look over the presents and take the ones back that don’t make sense now that you sit back and think about them. Do you really need an electric shoe polisher? And that chocolate fountain — when will I ever use that? Oh, and if you’re the Transportation Department, who was in charge of that E-ZPass thing anyway? It sounded good in a meeting, but it’s just one nightmare after another. What were we thinking? Give me a gift receipt and let’s take the thing back.

Like most cases of buyer’s remorse, this started innocently enough. Toll takers on vacation in New Jersey saw how neat it was to be able to just drive through a toll booth and have your toll automatically deducted by radio signal — just like some nifty electronic toy from Radio Shack. Wouldn’t that be great to have in New Hampshire? People would be happier because they would avoid the stress of noticing the money as it came out of their pockets. It would probably speed up traffic. Best of all, it would save the system lots of money because we wouldn’t have to handle tokens.

It sounds too good to be true. And just like the Home Shopping Network sales pitch for the ultimate holiday gadget, it turns out that it actually was too good to be true. The picture on the package looks perfect, but trying to decipher the instructions and assemble the parts can get messy, fast.

The trouble started when someone decided to sell the transponder for your car that lets you go through really cheap. They cost $25 but we sold them for $5, a net cost to the taxpayers of $4 million — about 20 percent if it’s going to foot the bill for Massachusetts residents.

Still, with all the money we’re saving, what’s another $4 million? Well, about those savings, we might have made a mistake. See the tokens cost a good $800,000 a year to manage so eliminating them will save that. But the new system is going to cost millions each year to manage. The initial contract was for $16 million. So 16 + 4 is $20 million in new costs, but we’ll save the $800,000 so we’re only out $19 million.

A big loss instead of saving money would be bad public relations so the commissioner claims E-ZPass makes more money because it charges people more than they paid with tokens. With tokens, a daily round trip was 75 cents off the nominal $1.50. With E-ZPass you get to pay 40 percent more, or $1.05. Of course, they don’t mention that they could have raised the tolls whether they had E-ZPass or not.

Just when we got used to the “boondoggle that is bankrupting the turnpike system” (a longer nickname than E-ZPass but a trifle more accurate, yes?), the authorities decided to drop another bombshell on us. The time-honored “exact change” lane, they announced, had to be eliminated because the equipment was old and breaking down. We would save money by just having everyone without a snazzy transponder go to a manned toll booth. Very sad, but it had to be done.

Seeing how well the last cost-saving measure turned out, an enterprising reporter decided to look into it further. Apparently the company we paid $16 million to earlier had put in 85 brand spanking new exact change machines. Fortunately for the taxpayers, he reminded the commissioner of this. Her response was not “Oh yeah, I forgot,” but it should have been.

Maybe for next Christmas we should all just get electronic calculators. NH

Charlie Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, and still has a couple of rolls of tokens in his car.