Saying congestion was the reason, New York’s MTA announced that tollbooths will disappear from its bridges and tunnels.
If your reaction was like mine, you might have thought, “Sounds good.” Equipped with cameras and sensors, the bridge and tunnel approaches will have the information they need to charge your E-Z Pass account or send a bill.
The NY Times tells us that for the 800,000 vehicles using the MTA’s bridges and tunnels each day, the total wait time is 6,400 hours. Looked at per car per year, the average time saved will be 21 hours while together we save one million gallons of gasoline. I know we can question these stats but we do know that on Labor Day delays increased because the cash tolls were up by 34%.
In addition, with E-Z Pass, we barely stress over what we have paid.
And that might be the problem.
Holland Tunnel Toll Hikes
Located mostly under the Hudson River, New York’s Holland Tunnel connects New Jersey and New York. When the tunnel opened in 1927, the first toll was $.50. According to the BLS Inflation Calculator, the equivalent today is $6.92. Since then, Holland Tunnel tolls went down from 1937 to 1980, minimally increased from 1980 to 2001 and then started their ascent.
More recently, they really started going up. Comparing E-Z Pass tolls for “peak” from the end of 2012 to now, you can see a 20% (or so) spike:
Dec. 2, 2012: $10.25
Dec. 1, 2013: $11.00
Dec. 7, 2014: $11.75
Dec. 6, 2015: $12.50
As a frequent driver from NJ to NYC, I did not notice the toll increases.
Our Bottom Line: Hidden Taxes
According to an MIT economist, no one else notices the toll increases either.
Using E-Z Pass as her case study, MIT economist Amy Finkelstein concluded that toll rates are 20% to 40% higher than they would have been with manual collection. Her bigger purpose though was to gather data about “tax salience.” By salience she just means conspicuousness. In a 2009 article, she suggests that government will charge us more when the tax or toll is less evident.
So, returning to where we began, the hidden cost of E-Z Pass is higher tolls.
My sources and more: A NY Times article had the most recent information on E-Z Pass while NPR alerted me to the academic research for tolls and then more generally on tax salience. But for an interesting story, I recommend the Awl’s history of the Holland Tunnel and this E-Z Pass history.