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Column: New Fee is a Bad Idea

The building of the Dulles Toll Road in the 1980s was viewed as a way to provide traffic congestion relief to western Fairfax County at a time when Routes 7 and 50 or a series of secondary roads were the only ways to get from Reston to Tysons Corner and beyond. It was clear at the time that the state would not be able to fund another road until decades into the future. From the earliest discussion of the road being paid for by tolls I was always an advocate for the electronic collection of tolls, a novel idea for its time. My personal investigation of the use of transponders on vehicles as a way to collect tolls found that such a system was being used on a roadway in Texas. I looked into that system and found that it used a transponder that was about the size of a large candy bar that was bolted to the back of the license plate. By the time Virginia got around to investing in an electronic toll collection system, transponders had been reduced in size to the small box that we now attach to our windshields.

Virginia went its own way in adopting a "smart tag" electronic toll collection system rather than invest in the systems that were by that time being introduced in other states. That caused a concern on the part of many locals who drove the turnpikes in other states and wanted a transponder that would work on all the roads. Virginia finally adopted the E-ZPass that not only collects tolls on Virginia highways but on tollways in other states as well.

Electronic toll collecting was received with much acclaim. There was no longer a reason to save quarters and keep a supply in the car. Special lanes allowed drivers to slow down rather than stop at the toll booths. And the state saved money from not having to hire all those toll collectors. The roadways could carry more people as the traffic flowed more freely through the toll booths.

Recently the Virginia Department of Transportation announced that it was considering a one-dollar-per-month rental fee on E-ZPass transponders. Seems that VDOT is expecting to have to buy more transponders as there will be more toll roads like the HOT lanes on the Beltway in the future. Ironically, the system that was considered in the past to save money over having to hire toll collectors is being considered an extra expense.

For many years I argued that people who use electronic transponders to pay their tolls should be given some discount to encourage them and others to use the system that saves the state money and eases the flow of traffic. I was told that bond financing terms did not permit discounts.

I have written to the Governor, Secretary of Transportation, and the Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Transportation to express my strong opposition to the fee. We should not be adding fees for a service that saves the state money. It is a bad idea that should not be approved.