This past weekend I drove my son up to a football training camp in Philadelphia. In addition to having some quality one on one time with my boy I also had some experiences from the driving perspective. We headed over to I-95 and thought we had everything we needed. I had brought one of my E-ZPass transponders so that we could zip through the tolls. At the first toll coming out of the Fort McHenry Tunnel (yes, it is now two dollars each way) we used the lane on the far left side that allowed us to maintain 30 miles per hour because the lane was wide and the transponder reader was overhead. So far, so good. At the next toll however, we ran into a little problem.
As we went through the second Maryland toll an alarm went off and the message board flashed "Invalid Tag." I thought perhaps it was because we were not using the vehicle to which the EZ-Pass tag is assigned but that it would be charged anyway and things would be just fine. Even still, and the more I thought about it, I figured I'd better see if I couldn't get things straightened out before we got to the Delaware welcoming station (also known as their toll plaza which is the first thing you get to experience in the state regardless of the direction you are traveling).
I called the phone number on the EZ-Pass transponder and fairly shortly was connected to a live person... not a helpful person, but live nevertheless. The problem, it was explained, was that the credit card they had on account for me had expired. I offered to give her my new credit card number but was told that in order to do so I would have to tell her my PIN number. "Oh, you mean the number I created ten years ago and have never used since?" I could feel the icy chill through the phone. "Do you know your PIN?" So I tried to guess at it and failed. Here I was offering to give my credit card that would be used to charge tolls against and I needed a PIN number to do so. Why would I add my credit card to the EZ-Pass account of a total stranger? The whole thing was very irritating. I should add that I never received a notice from the good people at Maryland EZ-Pass telling me that they needed a new credit card for my account because the date on my old card had expired.
Because we no longer had use of our EZ-Pass transponder we had to wait in line and pay by cash. And wait we did. We averaged a 12 minute wait at each of the toll plazas we went through where we had to pay cash. 12 minutes times three or four toll plazas adds a lot to the trip and was particularly maddening as I watched all those cars and trucks zip through the EZ-Pass lanes. I vowed that I would get my transponder situation in order before I set out again.
When I got home I realized that I still couldn't update my Maryland EZ-Pass account because I still didn't have my PIN number although one was being sent to me within 10-15 working days... literally as fast as mud. I should also note that I signed up for EZ-Pass with Maryland many years ago because there was no charge for the transponder and no monthly fee. Maryland is adding a monthly fee and I will be sending my two transponders back to them with a nice note of thanks for all the fine service they have given me. Instead I have purchased a new EZ-Pass transponder from the good people in Delaware who, if nothing else, know something about tolling. They charged me an upfront fee but not a monthly fee.
EZ-Pass is a wonderful thing if you have to drive on the interstates. But your experience may vary depending on the state that supplies your transponder.
Every once in a while somebody comes up with an idea to sort of boycott a company or companies as a way of protesting what they have done, what they sell, or what they stand for politically. Over the years people have tried to organize boycotts against Coke because of its policies in South Africa or they have tried to boycott Proctor and Gamble because it was believed that the seven stars in the company logo had some roots in Satanism. I admit that after the oil tanker the Exxon Valdez broke apart and fouled 1,200 miles of Alaskan coastline I cut my Exxon gas card into small pieces, mailed the bits back to the company with a note berating them for being such no-goodnics and asking that my account be closed.
The latest is the whole Dump the Pump effort; a good idea but one that needs the participation of a very large percentage of commuters to have an impact. I can't imagine that one day of selling 10% or even 30% less gasoline is going to hurt any of the big oil companies. Remember that when gas was near $4 a gallon and the amount of gas people were buying was down substantially, Exxon was setting records for the amount of profits it was making. The only way that efforts like Dump the Pump will have an impact is if large numbers of people make changes in their commute, meaning that they are leaving the car at home or in commuter lots and taking transit.
Dump the Pump Day is going to happen on Thursday, June 18. WMATA (DC Metro) is taking part as is PRTC. There may be more local involvement but that is the extent of the list sent out by the organizers at the American Public Transportation Association (nothing self-serving about this).
Steve Eldridge is a long-time reporter, observer and commentator on the Washington region's transportation issues. You can contact him directly by writing to: Steve@SprawlandCrawl.com. Unless otherwise requested, letters or portions of letters can be used within future columns. Letter writers will be identified by their first name and city/neighborhood.