Some tolling authorities have found a way to give local motorists a discount on tolls while charging out-of-towners a higher rate for using the same roads and bridges.
The E-ZPass electronic toll reading system used by 24 tolling agencies in 14 states in the Northeast and Midwest is able to differentiate where motorists bought their passes and apply varying prices.
Motorists traveling the full length of the New Jersey Turnpike during off-peak hours, for example, pay $10.40 if they bought their E-ZPass from the turnpike's operators. If they bought their E-ZPass from another tolling authority, or if they're paying cash, the charge is $13.85. Rhode Island residents with an E-ZPass can cross the Pell Bridge for 83 cents, but out-of-state passenger car drivers with E-ZPass pay $4 ($2 per axle), the same as drivers paying cash.
New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority charges motorists who bought their E-ZPasses locally $4.80 to cross the Robert F. Kennedy, Bronx-Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridges and use the Brooklyn-Battery and Queens Midtown tunnels. Motorists with transponders purchased elsewhere, or who pay cash, are charged $6.50.
Similar arrangements exist in New Hampshire, Maine and West Virginia, according to AAA, the nation's largest auto club.
Unless out-of-town motorists peruse the tolling authority's website, they're unlikely to learn of the disparity, said Jeffrey Frediani, a legislative analyst with AAA's New York chapter. Many tolling authorities post only the cash price at tolling facilities, providing no clue that some motorists are getting a discount, he says.
"There is no reason for one authority to charge some E-ZPass holders a higher toll except, unfortunately in our estimation, to take advantage of drivers who may be from out of state," AAA President Robert Darbelnet complained in a letter last month to the agency that coordinates the E-ZPass system.
Each tolling authority makes its own rules. New York and New Jersey toll officials defend their pricing, saying decisions to eliminate discounts for E-ZPass holders who buy their passes out of state were made to raise money in tough economic times. The MTA was facing a $900 million deficit at the time.
The Pell bridge discount is available only to Rhode Island residents. But anyone, no matter where they live, can buy an E-ZPass through the New Jersey Turnpike Authority or an office that services the MTA to get the discounts those jurisdictions offer, agency officials said.
"That's typical bureaucratese," said New York state Assemblyman Alan Maisel, a Brooklyn Democrat who has introduced a bill to end the practice. "I think it's absurd."