The online home for Greg Leedberg, since 1995.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The case against the New Hampshire EZ-Pass system

UPDATE: 10-29-2005 - Since posting this critique, this page has become one of the most visited pages on my website, so I've added some additional thoughts at the end of the post.

Recently, the state of New Hampshire -- my home state -- began to phase in EZ-Pass for use at its highway toll booths. Some people were against it, many people thought this would be a great new convenience, and in the end it is indeed being used here. However, anyone who really analyzes the situation should notice that there are severe problems with this project, and I'd like to take this opportunity to point out what's wrong with EZ-Pass in NH. As the saying goes, if you aren't mad, you aren't paying attention.

Some history: NH previously had been using a coin-based toll system. There were electronic "buckets" at the tolls you could toss coins in, or you could give them to a human. Drivers could buy special tokens, which gave one a 50% discount over using regular quarters.

EZ-Pass, on the other hand, skips coins and instead uses an electronic beacon installed in the driver's car. As you drive through the toll, a computer system reads the ID of your beacon, and deducts the toll from a pre-paid account. Several surrounding states already use EZ-Pass, such as Massachusetts and New York. Luckily, EZ-Pass beacons are state-agnostic, so a NH EZ-Pass beacon can be used to pay tolls in New York, and so on.

On the surface, EZ-Pass doesn't sound like a bad idea. And in fact, I'm not contesting whether or not EZ-Pass itself is a valid improvement to the toll systems. It means you don't have to carry change, don't have to open your window at toll booths in the rain and snow, and don't have to come to a complete stop in order to pay a toll. Indeed, I think EZ-Pass is a fine invention.

My problem, rather, is with New Hampshire's horrifically poor way of bringing EZ-Pass into the state.

It turns out, the NH government had two objectives: one, to introduce EZ-Pass. But also, to raise the tolls (hereafter referred to correctly as "highway taxes"). Remember that the previous method for payment was coins. The vast majority of NH highway drivers made use of the tokens, and so were receiving a 50% discount. In fact, since the number of token-using drivers was such a significant majority, it's relatively safe to say that the effective highway tax was actually 50% of what was posted. For instance, the posted tax at a toll booth near my home is 50 cents, but since hardly anyone uses regular coins, the real tax here must be considered to be half of that, or 25 cents. The 50 cent figure is largely an artificial figure -- the importance of this becomes apparent later on.

With the introduction of EZ-Pass, the state of NH announced that rather than a 50% discount, EZ-Pass subscribers would instead get a 30% discount. Since effectively no one uses coins and everyone is expected to be switched over to the EZ-Pass system, this actually results in a tax increase.

Herein lies the real issue: the introduction of EZ-Pass involved two separate issues which should have been handled separately. Each (EZ-Pass and tax increase) should have been individually debated and treated as separate issues. Instead, we have this one, big issue which no one can intelligently debate because it contains two effectively unrelated issues. If you say you're against it, someone will say that EZ-Pass itself is great, and it is. If you say that maybe we do need higher highway taxes, then someone will say "sure, but then why are we spending money to introduce EZ-Pass?" It's an absolute mess.

If EZ-Pass truly was being introduced for the convenience of the driver, and not to sneak in higher taxes, then this would not be so bad. In such a scenario, tokens would surely continue to be supported in the event that some people may not want to use EZ-Pass (for example, not everyone wants to install an EZ-Pass beacon on a nice car). However, this is not the case. Discounted tokens have already ceased to be sold, and they will no longer be accepted after the end of 2005. Hence, everyone is being forced to either use EZ-Pass, or use standard coins. Standard coins of course cannot be discontinued because not all out-of-state people may even have the option of owning an EZ-Pass beacon. If regular coins will still be accepted anyways, it would be trivial to still accept discounted tokens -- unless one's true motivation was to increase highway taxes, not increase convenience for drivers.

There was some discontent among New Hampshire citizens about all of this, so the state offered a discount on beacons for the initial period during which they were offered. This, I believe, was the most malicious move in all of this. Had everyone had until January 2006 to get EZ-Pass beacons, perhaps more thought would have been expended by the public on the virtues of the EZ-Pass introduction / highway tax increase. However, by offering us a limited-time deal on beacons, large numbers of people were motivated to buy one in order to save money, assuming that the success of EZ-Pass was inevitable. It certainly became inevitable once such a majority of people purchased beacons. Now that so many people have inadvertently bought into the idea, there is little hope that the issue will be thoroughly analyzed.

In the end, I do like the idea of EZ-Pass, and I also understand that it's entirely possible that a highway tax increase was necessary. However, these are two separate issues which should have been handled and debated separately, but the state of New Hampshire did not do this, and even went to lengths to make sure that no separated debate could occur.

Even without a discount, I will continue to use coins. I will not buy an EZ-Pass beacon, ever. Doing so will only legitimatize the methods by which EZ-Pass and the tax increase were introduced into New Hampshire. If you have not already, I encourage you to also not buy into the scheme. Make your opinion heard.

ADDENDUM: 10-29-2005
The above post mostly critiques the manner in which EZ Pass was brought into New Hampshire; namely, the fact that two debateable issues were combined into one, big, ugly issue. I honestly think that this is the most important problem with EZ Pass -- if this had been addressed, there have been no EZ Pass system introduced into the state to begin with. There are certainly many other objections to NH's EZ Pass system, some of which I'll cover here.

Privacy There are many privacy implications of EZ Pass, which many people probably do not realize. These problems lie with EZ Pass in any state, but I'll point out how they have special implications in NH. When one pays with cash (or discounted tokens), it is entirely an anonymous transaction. However, when one pays using EZ Pass, there is a record created of you, specifically, going through a particular toll booth at a particular day and time. If all of these records were correlated together, an eavesdropper could build a pretty complete picture of where you're going and when, as well as when you're not home and when.

Like most people, you may very well have nothing to hide about your travelling activities, but that doesn't mean that you don't deserve a right to privacy. Someone with access to this information could, for example, know when large numbers of people are not at home, in order to break into houses. Or just think of someone who's not currently on good terms with you. All of these arguments are null if this information were kept confidential, but luckily for us New Hampshire is the one and only EZ Pass state which does not have a privacy policy relating to the information they necessarily will collect from users. Without a privacy policy, they have absolutely no obligation to keep anything private. We have absolutely no idea who may be able to access our information -- the state in issuing speeding tickets (getting from booth A to booth B in too short an amount of time), unfriendly acquaintainces in tracking your movements, or even computer crackers.

Costs This is a quick objection, but it's worth mentioning nonetheless. Reports I have seen have all indicated that the costs of maintaining EZ Pass actually far exceed the costs to maintain the older token collection buckets. Apparently these costs even exceed the extra revenue brought in by the highway tax increase, so another revenue source (or another tax increase) might be necessary soon. Is the "convenience" of EZ Pass really worth that much to you?

If you have any other thoughts, feel free to email me, or leave a message in the forum.