Driving into or around New York City using an E-ZPass can mean not having to wait in a long line of cars at the tollbooth. But if your E-ZPass account is registered in New Jersey, it can also mean having to pay a higher toll than the motorist right behind you.
A recent study released by AAA Northeast highlighted the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s practice of providing an E-ZPass discount only to motorists who have an account that’s registered in New York. At the same time, they hit motorists with E-ZPass accounts from New Jersey and other states with the same toll rates as drivers paying cash.
The discrepancy means that out-of-state E-ZPass motorists, unless they have an E-ZPass account that’s based in New York, are being charged rates at MTA facilities that are as much as $5.48 more than New York motorists with home-state accounts, the AAA study found. And while the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was praised by AAA for offering discounts to all E-ZPass motorists at its facilities, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority was knocked for providing an E-ZPass discount during off-peak hours on the turnpike only to motorists who have their accounts registered in New Jersey.
While releasing the E-ZPass data, AAA called on federal officials to review what’s its labeling “unfair practices,” and the study has also drawn the attention of New Jersey Assemblyman Kevin Rooney (R-Bergen), who is proposing a package of bills to better protect Garden State motorists.
Warning: high tolls ahead
Rooney’s legislation would require the New Jersey Turnpike Authority to warn motorists that having an E-ZPass account doesn’t necessarily mean you will receive E-ZPass toll discounts while traveling in other states. He’s also encouraging officials from New Jersey and New York to set up a reciprocal agreement that would allow the same discounts to be offered to E-ZPass motorists from both states.
“These bills are an effort to level the playing field for our commuters and ensure the integrity of the E-ZPass system,” Rooney said.
The E-ZPass electronic toll-collection system was launched in the 1990s by toll agencies based in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania to provide motorists with a way to automatically pay tolls by using a transponder attached to their vehicle’s windshield. The E- system is now used by 38 different tolling agencies in 16 states, with 18 million accounts and $8 billion in toll revenues nationwide, according to stats compiled by the E-ZPass Interagency Group.
When it debuted, many toll agencies offered discounts to encourage motorists to use the E-ZPass technology to reduce traffic at tollbooths, which could also reduce the number of agency employees needed to collect tolls from motorists still paying in cash. Some agencies continue to offer a discount for E-ZPass customers, especially at off-peak times as part of efforts to fight congestion.
The MTA offers E-ZPass discounts at its bridges, including the Verrazano-Narrows, Bronx-Whitestone, Throgs Neck, and Robert F. Kennedy (formerly the Triborough), as well as its tunnels, including the Hugh L. Carey (formerly Brooklyn Battery) and Queens-Midtown. The New York-only E-ZPass discounts range from $2.74 at most MTA facilities, to $5.48 at the Verrazano-Narrows, according to AAA.
In all, between 2012 and 2016, more than 92 million out-of-state motorists with E-ZPass were charged the cash rates at the MTA facilities, according to AAA. Most of those motorists, an estimated 70 million, had accounts registered in New Jersey.
By contrast, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the Holland and Lincoln tunnels and the George Washington Bridge, among other facilities, provides discounts ranging between $2.50 and $4.50 to all E-ZPass motorists. Massachusetts also provides a small discount to out-of-state E-ZPass motorists, the AAA study found.
In New Jersey, the Turnpike Authority no longer offers its E-ZPass motorists a discount unless they are traveling the turnpike during off-peak hours. Out-of-state motorists are prevented altogether from getting the E-ZPass discount unless their account is based in New Jersey. The New York State Thruway, which operates the Tappan Zee Bridge, announced a similar policy at the start of 2017.
Rooney, the New Jersey lawmaker, wants to raise awareness among New Jersey motorists that they likely won’t receive an E-ZPass discount while traveling in other states if they have an account registered in New Jersey.
One of the bills Rooney is sponsoring would require the New Jersey Turnpike Authority to post an update on the agency’s website that officially warns customers their E-ZPass accounts may not qualify for discounts in other states. Another piece of legislation urges the MTA to begin providing its discounts to motorists with New Jersey E-ZPass accounts, and a third measure seeks to establish a reciprocal agreement that would permit the Turnpike Authority and the MTA to provide each agency’s discounts to motorists from either state.
“One of the primary reasons E-ZPass was created was to offer drivers discounted rates,” Rooney said. “We now find that certain drivers are given preferential treatment — the only reason for which is that their E-ZPass was issued by a New York agency.”
New Jersey Turnpike Authority spokesman Thomas Feeney declined comment on the Rooney proposal yesterday, saying he had yet to see the legislation. But Robert Sinclair, a spokesman for AAA Northeast, suggested the legislation could create some goodwill by prompting the Turnpike Authority to start giving the off-peak discount to out-of-state E-ZPass motorists.
“In so doing, other states might be motivated to follow New Jersey’s lead,” Sinclair said.