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The state's latest possible budget cut takes a toll on me

March 19, 2012

As a hopeless romantic, I fear the day when the venerable highway toll booth becomes a thing of the past. Ah, but how we will become misty eyed, recalling those halcyon days of idling in a sea of traffic, with horns blaring, fumes rising up through the floorboards and vehicles cutting each other off, just to gain an extra two car lengths.

But it’s going to happen, as sure as freight trains lost their cabooses, as sure as Sears lost Roebuck.

A story in The (Baltimore) Sun last week announced that the State of Maryland is on the brink of doing away with toll booths on its bridges and tunnels, and moving toward an all-electronic collection method.

That would mean shutting down seven toll plazas and releasing or finding new work for 194 of the most cheerful people I know. All told, the conversion could take place for somewhere in the neighborhood of $180 million.

Only in Maryland could you shut down a significant branch of transportation infrastructure and reduce your workforce by nearly 200 and have it wind up COSTING you money. Welcome to automation, Maryland style.

If I sound grumpy, however, it is because I myself have been a victim of this automated toll collection system.

This really serves to illustrate why hayseeds like moi should never venture to the big city where they do things differently and technologies are far beyond my understanding.

We were returning home from a trip to College Park, and decided that we would take a ride on the fancy new Intercounty Connector, a “state of the art, multi-modal” highway that, as transportation systems go, is just as sophisticated as space travel, although more expensive.

We tooled right onto the expressway no problem, and it proved to be 18 of the most enjoyable, traffic-free miles I’ve ever driven. There was no toll booth where we entered the highway, so I expected to see one at our exit. But I didn’t. Briefly forgetting what state I lived in, I assumed there must be a grace period or some friendly “introductory offer” in which I would not have to pay.

Wrong-o.

Two weeks later, I receive a personalized note in the mail from the Maryland Transportation Authority that begins, “Dear Mr./Ms. TIMOTHY ROWLAND.” It continued, “Our records indicate that your vehicle traveled through one or more Maryland toll facilities without payment of the toll(s) due.

“When this occurred, the unpaid toll transaction(s) was identified and recorded using a videographic image of the vehicle’s license plate and/or there occurred a non-payment reading from your E-Z Pass transponder.”

Now as you can imagine, I am normally a civilly obedient kind of guy. So I was tempted just to send them the required $4.80 and be done with it. With my contribution, the state would only be another $4,499,999,995.20 away from having the road paid off.

But the more I thought about it, the less I liked being accused of occurring a nonpayment reading from my transponder. What goes on between me and my transponder is none of the state’s business.

So I decided to go full old man on them. I’d mail back the form, and writing with my left hand (in No. 2 lead pencil), I’d say that I had not seen any toll booth or any signs either, although my eyesight isn’t so good these days, and I’d challenge any of these young state punks to prove me wrong.

Then I started thinking that maybe the state needs the money more than I do. In order to collect $4.80, they’d sent me three pages of text and tables and legalese that probably cost them twice what I owed.

At least that explains how you can shut down an entire department and have it cost $180 million.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 6997, or via email at timr@herald-mail.com.

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