In 2020, New York made its entire tolling system cashless. Instead of paying cash at a toll booth, now drivers just have to drive under a gantry that automatically bills any car with an electronic tolling device, known as the E-ZPass tag. Drivers who pass through a gantry without an E-ZPass tag are billed under the “Tolls by Mail” method: they receive a paper bill through mail in about 30-40 days. In addition, tolls by mail will cost 30% more plus a flat $2 administrative surcharge. The new system places a heavier burden on long-term interstate drivers who do not have an E-ZPass tag. The extra mailing work could possibly justify the extra fee, but the fee is not a fixed number: it grows with time and becomes a burden to people’s right to free interstate travel. Those billed while away from home for longer periods might not be able to pay the bill on time, and may therefore have to pay a fine: the so-called “administrative fee.” This fee could potentially impose an unfair burden on travelers who plan to go for a vacation, a long trip, or any business trip away from home. To address this issue, New York State should consider allowing a longer “grace period” and sending additional notice letters.
Before cashless tolling, drivers could either use the E-ZPass tag or pay cash at the booth. Once they pay, the bill is settled. But today, drivers without an E-ZPass tag must wait for bills in the mail. Once the bill is sent, the toll is due in 30 days. An overdue payment leads to a $5 late fee and another 30-day deadline extension, and if you miss the deadline again, there will be a $50 violation fee with the final 15 days of grace period. In other words, drivers only have 60 days to avoid the $50 fine, or 75 days to avoid being referred to a collection agency. This period is long enough for intrastate drivers or the ones who plan to return to New York within a brief period, but not for the interstate travelers who stay outside of the state for months.
For example, a family going for a three-month vacation in Florida—or a traveler taking a cross country road trip from New York to California—could easily miss the toll mail. By the time they arrived at home, each would face their unpaid tolls alongside any late charges. This problem could also disproportionately affect non-New York travelers. Because only 17 states use E-ZPass, travelers who are not from one of those states often do not have an E-ZPass tag and are hence unfamiliar with cashless tolling. Such drivers may pass through a gantry without knowing the nature or timeline of the tolls accrued. And they therefore risk missing the payment deadline without proper notice. Eventually, tolls by mail makes fine almost inevitable for long-term interstate travelers.
Arguably, people who can afford long-period road trips can likely afford one $50 bill. However, the real issue is not whether the fine would substantially impact their financial situation, but whether the state should disproportionately burden long-term interstate travelers. The toll fee billed should accord with the length of the road traveled. However, under tolls by mail system, the state is charging the long-term interstate drivers driving on toll roads for a higher fee even if they use toll roads of the same length. The longer overall trips of the interstate travelers do not justify the extra cost if the toll roads do not offer them extra efficiency. Therefore, the tolls by mail system that makes an extra “administrative fee” inevitable for long term interstate travelers is fundamentally unfair and unjust.
In addition, New York State’s toll fine is one of the highest, making the burden on long-term interstate travelers even heavier. New Jersey and New York are the only two states that charge a toll fine up to $50. New York State law even allows a fine up to $100. One single bill of $50 might not be excessively high, but the bills could add up. If a violator drove through multiple toll roads, the bills are fined separately. For instance, in 2018, a Buffalo driver’s $6 toll bill turned into a $306 bill with late fines piling up. Such fines are unfair when they are unavoidable for drivers who need to stay out of state for months.
To solve the problem, the state should both extend the time period to pay and send additional notice letters. First, the state should allow the drivers to have at least six months to pay without fine and send an extra letter of notice two months after the first one. This way, most travelers will be able to return home and pay the toll bills before the government starts collecting fines. Second, New York should also consider sending additional notice letters if the bill remains unpaid a month after the first letter has been sent. The prior letter could stay in the mailbox for months before the travelers return home. The uncollected letters could be subject to theft or water damage. Additional notice letters may help reduce such risks and act as an additional reminder for people who do not realize that they have passed through a toll gantry. Thus, a longer payment period and additional notice letters would reduce the burden on interstate travelers’ right to travel.
New York’s cashless tolling, though it may reduce congestion and improve efficiency, creates an unjustified burden on long-term interstate travelers without E-ZPass tags installed. Because tolls-by-mail system requires people to stay at home, interstate travelers might miss the letter and the deadlines. To solve this problem, the state should allow a longer grace period for the travelers to return home and send out additional notice letters to avoid potential destruction or theft of the first letter. In this way, the state could bill all travelers in the same manner and avoid excessively burdening long-term interstate drivers.
About the Author: Fengshu Yang is a Chinese international student interested in criminal defense. He is considering moving to Canada after graduating from Cornell Law School and start his career there.
Suggested Citation: Fengshu Yang, Cashless Tolling: A Burden on Long-Term Travelers without an E-ZPass Tag, Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y, The Issue Spotter, (March 24, 2022), http://jlpp.org/blogzine/cashless-tolling-a-burden-on-long-term-travelers-without-an-e-zpass-tag/.