Before I moved to Florida from Maryland in 2005, I had an E-ZPass in Maryland which we used for the Bay Bridge toll payments.  We got it in about 2000, and it was wonderful.  It was a time when electronic toll systems were just getting started in the US.  The big benefit was bypassing the 1-mile+ long lines of cars waiting to pay cash on Saturday mornings when everyone was headed to the Eastern Shore and, most probably, the beaches at Ocean City.  At that time, there was only one E-ZPass reserved  lane at the toll booths for the bridge.  So few people had the device, that everyone with it simply went around the lines of cars and never stopped. It easily saved 10-15 minutes or more.

Later, after we left Maryland in 2005, we switched to SunPass in Florida.  The big change with SunPass was a much more mature web site that worked quite well.  Even though I moved to Pittsburgh in 2013, I still have the SunPass account for myself and my children still in school in Florida, and a portable device for either my own car or a rental car when we visit.

Because my wife and I travel to New York City somewhat frequently, and SunPass won’t work on the E-ZPass system here until October of 2016 (more on that later), I decided to get an E-ZPass to hopefully save some time and money.  Boy, was that a mistake!  They did not even make it to the activation and use stage, before I closed the account.

To keep things simple, SunPass has a much better system because…

  • E-ZPass chooses to own its devices, whereas SunPass is purchased and owned by the buyer.  If you choose to leave SunPass, great… do whatever you want with the device.  You just won’t be able to use it anymore since it is deregistered.  If you decide to get rid of E-ZPass, send it back or they’ll charge you way more than the device costs.
  • E-ZPass only has one form of the device: a white box with Velcro strips to attach to Velcro strips on your window.  For those of you who have not yet tried to use an automated toll device in a rental car, I’ll have to ask you to imagine how you will get the device mounted in the rental car without the Velcro mounts on the windshield.  SunPass has a white box with suction cups to easily transfer the device and, alternatively, offers a flat sticker that can be permanently mounted on the car.
  • E-ZPass charges $40 for its only box, of which $35 goes onto your toll “wallet” for use on the toll roads.  E-ZPass also charges an annual $3 “maintenance fee” for the device.  SunPass charges a one-time fee of $25.00 for the portable white box, or $5.00 for the sticker. No annual fee.
  • The E-ZPass web site operates like a militant government process, and is archaic and broken.  During the sign-in process, it ignored verification which had been done, would not let me add a rental car because the end date for the rental car was never enabled and was mandatory, and had numerous other problems I only see with web sites designed in the 1990’s.  The SunPass  web site has constantly matured, and operates more like a user-friendly commercial web site than a government agency.
  • The E-ZPass system is being used in a corrupt way by New York, which I will explain.

How to the federal government got involved

In late 2013, I got a letter from SunPass regarding a mandatory upgrade of certain older transponders.  It was an exchange program, where they would send you the new replacement for free. I received the upgrade, but it made me wonder why they were upgrading only certain transponders.  So I did some research, and discovered that it was part of a program to make the various electronic toll systems interoperable across the United States.  The US Department of Transporation issued a mandate to the several electronic toll collection agencies across the United States to make the systems interoperable by 2015.  That deadline was reluctantly extended to October 2016, after a number of agencies stated they were not going to be able to make the original deadline.

The reason for this is quite simple: a dollar on the West Coast should be as acceptable as a dollar on the East Coast, and the system processing the payment should not be blocking that.  And I’m a huge fan of electronic toll payment, so I applaud the mandate.  As of October 2016 (as long as there is no further slippage), I can use my SunPass for tolls on the PA Turnpike and NY bridges and tunnels.

And now for the corrupt part (IMHO).  When driving on the New York tunnels and bridges, there are some interesting tare signs that give away New York’s sneaky approach to profiting from this mandate.  For example: when going through the Battery Tunnel from Manhattan to Brooklyn, the tolls are 8.00 for cash, 7.50 for E-ZPass, and 5.25 for a New York-issued E-ZPass.  Other signs also have four rates: Cash, NY Residents, E-ZPass and NY-issued E-ZPass.  Why the rate for a NY-issued pass?

While I do not support New York in any way for what they are doing, I do have to give them credit for seeing a big economic opportunity in this interoperability.  Because E-ZPass pays the E-ZPass operating authorities (NY, NJ, PA, etc) a percentage for operating the system, New York realized that the more people who buy the E-ZPass from New York, the more income they make when it is used anywhere in the United States after October 2016.  The amount of residual income for the NY  E-ZPass authority could increase substantially.  Granted only people who travel to New York would see the tare signs and regularly benefit from the savings of E-ZPass, but there are plenty of cross-state commuters from Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Jersey and others who would jump on the savings.

So my overall point is that the Federal Government really screwed up by not jumping in and directing the electronic toll payment system development at an early stage, so that a nationwide standard would exist for the RF tag we put in our vehicles. Because of that, we have this weird situation.  But if you are using electronic toll payment, consider looking at the various toll payment systems after October of 2016.  They will then no longer be monopolies, but competitors–much like the alternative natural gas, electric and phone service options that people have.

You could find a better deal.