Among the many trends the pandemic accelerated, one of the least noted has been the increase in so-called cashless toll roads—highways where electronic fee-collection systems have replaced human toll collectors. Now, as traffic returns to pre-pandemic levels, another trend is plaguing these new systems: fare evasion. Around the country, turnpike authorities and bridge and tunnel operators are logging hundreds of millions of dollars in losses as scofflaws find increasingly inventive ways to outfox the systems. Though advocates say that the losses represent a small portion of total revenues, some officials are contemplating raising tolls to account for the shortfalls—in the process costing those who play by the rules more. While drivers love the convenience of breezing along on a highway without toll booths, it’s becoming clear that many highway authorities didn’t have a good plan or the right technology in place to go completely toll-less.
A recent report by the New York State Comptroller’s Office sums up the problem. Since switching to a toll-less collection process in late 2020, the New York State Thruway Authority has racked up $276.3 million in unpaid tolls. The nature of these systems helps explain that staggering number. In the early 1990s, New York began installing sensors to allow drivers with a transponder to pay tolls electronically, but not everyone has joined the system. To dun those without these devices, New York has installed overhead cameras to record the licenses plates of other drivers, who then get billed by mail. The nearly 200 other highways, bridges, and tunnels that have gone cashless around the country generally use the same method. The system has gaps, though. Out-of-state drivers, for instance, are often beyond the reach of these systems and simply ignore the bills they receive. More worrisome is the fact that, as cashless tolling has spread, so has the use of fake licenses plates or plate holders that block cameras from recording the license number. So common are these plate holders that New York City asked Amazon to stop selling them.
Pennsylvania accelerated its plans to go cashless on major toll roads during the pandemic, laying off 500 unionized toll collectors. In its first two years of cashless roads, the state lost more than $250 million to fare beating and inefficient collection systems. In Rhode Island, where some bridges have gone cash-free, a single bridge spanning Narragansett Bay loses some $250,000 a year to toll evaders, according to recent press reports. Alarmingly, many thruway and tunnel authorities don’t have a good handle on just how much they are losing to fraud. And while advocates claimed that cashless roads would be cheaper to run than a manned system with toll collectors, the savings haven’t materialized in some places.
Some highway authorities point out that the losses represent a small portion of revenues. New York Thruway officials, responding to the comptroller’s report, said that they collected some $3.7 billion in tolls during the period that evaders cost them $276.3 million. In Pennsylvania, the highway authority head said that the state took in $1.2 billion in tolls in the first year of cashless operations, compared with a loss of $104 million from evaders.
Still, other drivers are paying the price for those losses. “We are making up for [the losses] through the rates that we charge to our travelers today,” a spokesman for Pennsylvania’s Turnpike Commission admitted after word of the mounting losses leaked out. New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, meantime, attributed proposals by the state’s thruway authority to raise tolls at least in part to similar losses, and his report was critical of lackadaisical efforts by the authority to collect its money. Those most likely to pay tolls, such as truck drivers, worry about the cost to their bottom line. “We are not surprised that drivers abuse the system,” the president of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association says. “Any additional increase in toll prices to recoup those losses would essentially force those that follow the rules to subsidize those that don’t.”
That’s true in other areas. Shoplifting raises prices for consumers, and insurance fraud raises premiums, for example. But the rise of unpaid tolls also seems due at least in part to highway officials’ cavalier rush into cashless payments despite shortcomings in technology and gaping holes in collection and enforcement. It’s easier to operate that way when you run a government-controlled monopoly and can just hike prices to make up for poor performance and other miscues.
Toll-beating seems like another example of how officials treat the law-abiding like chumps, always available to pay for the consequences of bad government.