Worth the Wait? Some Resist Toll-Payment Devices


Feb. 15, 2005 — -- Several days per week, Rodney Brown rolls up to a toll plaza in his home state of Texas and waits in line.

And waits.

And waits some more -- even as other cars zip by.

Brown is a holdout against the EZ Tag system in the Houston area. So he and others like him must crowd into the increasingly scarce toll lanes that still accept cash.

"It's mind-boggling, isn't it?" said Michael Kolb, vice president of Traffic Technologies Inc., which helps public agencies set up automated toll systems. "Every day I pass through a toll plaza, and the cash line is five, six and 10 cars deep. I scratch my head and say, 'What are these people doing?' "

They may believe they're playing it safe. In response to an online query, dozens told ABCNEWS.com via e-mail why they think getting an electronic toll device increases their risk of being monitored, accidentally overcharged, ticketed for speeding and more.

Brown, an attorney, said he resists the automation because he doesn't like the way his local authority draws money directly from bank accounts or credit cards to keep the toll devices funded. And that's not all.

"What if they have a computer glitch and they debit too much?" he asked. "If I stop using the toll road, how easy would it be to cancel the auto-debits? And since a computer records each time I pass through the toll booth, I also don't like the idea of someone knowing each and every time I drive on a particular road. That's kind of intrusive, I think. That means the toll authority would have a pretty good idea of which part of the city I'm in at just about all times. Scary!"

Still, after two years of waiting in line or avoiding the toll road on principle, Brown might be wavering.

"Up until the last few months or so, I adamantly opposed the EZ Tag for the reasons I stated," he wrote. "But the lines/wait are now becoming so annoying that I'm seriously thinking about getting it."

Driven by promises of shorter waits, discounts and convenience, millions of Americans have signed up for EZ Tag, E-ZPass and other automated toll systems. In many areas, significant majorities of toll users have switched over, and lanes staffed with toll-takers have been cut back or even eliminated completely.

Automated toll advocates say switching to devices like windshield- or bumper-mounted transponders is no immediate money saver for toll agencies, as some think. After all, equipment and construction can be pricey, as can shifting manpower to customer service and data processing, and creating technical compatibility with neighboring systems.

However, automated tolls offer more flexibility and the potential for innovation, proponents say.

For example, they say, rapid toll collection can relieve traffic choke points, and cut down on emissions from idling cars. Electronic systems can make it less confusing to vary toll rates based upon congestion and time of day. Checking transponders can help officials monitor traffic flow for more accurate traffic reports. And eventually, the technology may allow operators to dismantle traditional toll plazas entirely and replace them with checkpoints that collect fees without slowing traffic at all.

"The No. 1 benefit actually is the elimination of delays at the toll plaza," said Neil Gray, director of government affairs for the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, a group that represents most of America's large toll agencies. "They're not trying to make it electronic just so we can gouge you and charge you more. They're looking at, 'How can we make the system faster?' "

But not everybody has switched, often leaving diehards crowded into fewer lanes, angry and feeling pushed toward conforming to a system they philosophically oppose.

"One thing that really peeves me is how the highway commissions try to strong-arm you into getting a pass," wrote John Kmetz of Waterbury, Conn. "Fourteen toll lanes and 12 are E-ZPass. The line for cash will be two miles deep. The question remains -- is the commission really working to [expedite] the flow of traffic here or not?"

More than 75 ABCNEWS.com readers e-mailed at least 20 distinct reasons why they continue to hold out on automated tolls. Most commonly, they said they simply didn't use toll roads, tunnels or bridges often enough to warrant getting the gadgets.

However, a majority said the devices were a viable option that they refused to use. Many of the objectors didn't want their whereabouts known by the government, the courts, "Big Brother," direct marketers or perhaps even criminals.

"When I am going out of town to the airport I usually pay cash," wrote Jon Bender of Dallas, who says he reluctantly uses a toll device at other times. "An unscrupulous employee of the toll tag company [or the airport for that matter] could look and see which cars have gone to the airport and were away for an extended period of time after having passed through all the tolls. I choose not to gamble on the fact that I have been tracked."

Automated toll advocates argue it is more difficult than some believe to use the electronic devices to track people. They say individual records are closely guarded, often destroyed after a period of time and only disclosed in the face of a rare subpoena from a criminal court. And, they add, other everyday objects like credit cards or cell phones may offer even bigger risks of being tracked.

Even so, Jay Stanley, spokesman for the American Civil Liberty Union's Technology and Liberty Project, said the cash-toll payers' fears of being monitored are reasonable.

"It's true for most people, most of the time, that your comings and goings in a toll booth won't matter, but it's just another brick in the wall," Stanley said. "It's another data point. We need stronger privacy rules, like most other industrialized nations have, so we can enjoy these technologies without having to worry about their dark side."

A potential dark side worrying ABCNEWS.com e-mailers was fear of authorities calculating their travel speed via toll devices and sending them tickets through the mail.

Officials insisted that doesn't happen.

"No agency does that," said Gray, of the IBTTA. "It doesn't make sense for them to do that. You are a customer. They want you to come back."

But that doesn't mean it won't happen, skeptics said.

"People who are saying that they won't do it now, I'm sure, are well-intentioned and in earnest," the ACLU's Stanley said, "but these things tend to take on a life of their own.

"They set this infrastructure up; they promise not to do it," he added. "Everybody gets used to the technology … and then they suddenly flip the switch, and they're suddenly logging for citations."

Stanley and other critics argue such privacy issues might be resolved if the toll agencies were to opt for more anonymous systems.

In fact, such systems may be coming -- including pre-paid tickets that could be encoded with a cash value like phone cards and dispensed at ATM-like kiosks, Gray said.

Gray claimed some agencies already allow for blind accounts if customers regularly show up in person to maintain an account balance. However, at least one ABCNEWS.com e-mailer complained he refused to sign up for a toll device when he asked for and was denied such a payment option.

Besides privacy, several e-mailers worried about money matters and fraud -- as did Robert Sinclair Jr., spokesman for the AAA's Automobile Club of New York, who personally does not use E-ZPass, though AAA praises the system.

"I've had my identity stolen," Sinclair said. "I've had paychecks not deposited with direct deposit. I've had my credit card misappropriated. … I don't want another level of vulnerability."

Despite his personal misgivings, Sinclair noted AAA enthusiastically backs electronic tolls.

"It helps to reduce congestion, conserves fuel and cuts pollution," he said via e-mail. "It's a great time saver for commuters and pleasure travelers alike. And in the New York metro area, where increased fees and tolls are creating further financial burdens, the discounts for E-ZPass users (which are being reduced) are a welcome respite."

But even with savings offered at tolls in some areas, several e-mailers to ABCNEWS.com said deposits and fees required for toll transponders prevent them from signing on for electronic tolls. Others alleged their accounts had been improperly charged, or had fears that they could be overcharged or face fines if their transponders malfunctioned.

Some said the automated devices would not really save them time or money because of lack of traffic volume or discounts where they would use them.

Several worried fraudsters might hack into toll accounts or transponder coding to steal personal information or run up tabs. But Kolb, who helps agencies set up the toll systems, said approximately a decade of electronic tolls should put that concern to rest.

"The transponder communication is encrypted and protected, and to date there has been no evidence whatsoever of that kind of activity," he said. "The system has proven itself over time to actually be secure. You have now probably about 15 million of the tags on the road across the country."

A handful of e-mailers expressed a general disdain for tolls, and anger over electronic collection, which they saw as a new way to facilitate them. In fact, the number of toll roads has risen over the past recent decade, federal data suggests.

Others were concerned about what gets lost by eliminating old-fashioned toll booths -- including toll-taker jobs and human contact.

"We kind of like going [through] the lane where you have to get the correct change from the person there, just to say hello to them and tell them we appreciate the job they are doing and get to know them just a little," wrote David Carmack of Oklahoma. "They must get a little lonely out there."

E-mailers also offered a whimsical reason or two for saving cash tolls.

"No privacy issue here," wrote Miguel Guerra of Florida. "I just happen to enjoy throwing some change and trying to hit [or miss] the little basket."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events