Memorial Day Road Trips Could Get Expensive

See America right

See America right
Photo: Andrew Collins

Americans pride themselves on loving the freedom of the open road, yet many states are straight-up ignoring a 9-year-old law that would make it easier for road trippers to experience the whole of this great country while helping generate the revenue states crave. What gives?

Memorial Day weekend is coming up and that means the summer road trip season is upon us. With all of us sick and tired of our homes after a year in COVID-19 lockdown a ton of us are planning on road trips. In fact, 72 percent of Americans are planning to hit the road this summer, which is double the amount who planned on road tripping in 2020, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Those road trips could come with some surprise bills for travelers, all because states can’t get their shit together when it comes to tolls. The folks at NBCLX (which is a larger, sexier NBC, I think) would like to remind us that, way back in 2012, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act was supposed to fix this problem. The Act, which passed with widespread bipartisan support, was supposed to reform the toll road system in the U.S. by making the transponder that tabulates drivers’ tolls universal, but many states are stubbornly dragging their feet. From NBCLX:

In fact, a road trip from California to Florida would likely require at least three different transponders to communicate with all the different tolling regions across the country that aren’t yet interoperable with each other.

“To be very clear, it’s not a technology issue,” said former U.S. Rep. John Mica (R-Florida). “This is a bureaucracy issue.”

Mica, who sponsored the bipartisan interoperability bill in 2012, said the nation’s more than 130 different tolling agencies – across 34 states – know how to pay each other for the billions of monthly toll transactions generated on America’s toll roads, bridges, and tunnels. But they’ve yet to sign contracts with each other, or agree on exactly which technology to use to process the transactions.

“The intent of this was good,” Mica said. “The implementation has been terrible, and it’s long overdue for a simple electronic means of interoperability of toll passes across the United States.”

Like the late comedian Bill Hicks once said “If you think you’re free, try going somewhere without money,” and that’s certainly true on America’s roadways. And it’s not like it’s easy to get that money from road trippers after the fact. Maryland, for instance, is going after unpaid tolls on its roads from out-of-state drivers to the tune of $170 million. By the time a state catches up with drivers, they are also dealing with late fees. Wouldn’t it have been easier for everyone if drivers could pay as they drove? Now that many toll roads don’t take cash due to both the technology advancing and fears of COVID-19 spreading, the problem is only going to get worse.

You’d think with so much money on the line, states would be willing to step up and fix the system, but nearly a decade on that is clearly not the case. States had a deadline of October 2016 to get with the program, but there were no penalties for not playing nice with each other’s bureaucracies, so they just didn’t.

It looks like some toll roads might get the standardization they have required for years, at least in certain regions of the country. Georgia and Florida are entering into the E-Z pass coalition in the coming year, though some states out west have formed their own coalition with no plans to accept E-Z passes. Other states, like California and Minnesota are out there on their own. It looks like the all-American cross country road trip will remain a financial shit-show for the foreseeable future.

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