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Technology Eases the Ride To Higher Tolls
By DAVID LEONHARDT
New York Times
July 4, 2007
There is a stretch of the Garden State Parkway that used to feel like the tollbooth capital of America. In a span of 100 miles — from Pascack Valley, in northern New Jersey, to Barnegat, along the coast — eight different toll plazas greeted drivers. In much of the rest of the country, you wouldn’t find any tolls on a 100-mile stretch.
I spent a good part of my childhood summers at the Jersey Shore, and the tollbooths on the parkway always seemed to be a cruel final obstacle between me and the beach. Every 15 minutes or so, our car would have to stop yet again to drop a measly quarter in a bucket.
The ride is very different today, thanks mostly to the electronic toll system known as E-ZPass. At four of the tolls along the Garden State, the system is so sophisticated that cars barely have to slow down. A little box attached to the car’s windshield sends a message to a computer reader looming over the road, and money is then deducted from an electronic account.
I imagine that some of the children being driven to the Jersey Shore today won’t even look away from their DVD players as they glide through a toll. And I’m quite certain that very, very few of them will remember, decades from now, how much the Garden State tolls cost back when they were young. As a result of E-ZPass and its ilk, even many adults don’t notice the cost of a toll.
Which raises an interesting question: If you don’t know how much you’re paying for something, will you notice when the price goes up? Or has E-ZPass, for all its benefits, also made it easier for toll collectors to take your money?
A young economist named Amy Finkelstein started thinking about these issues a few years ago when she and her fiancé were driving back and forth between Boston, where they were living, and New York, where they were going to be married. So she collected decades of toll records from around the country and found a clear pattern.
After an electronic system is put in place, tolls start rising sharply. Take two tollbooths that charge the same fee and are in a similar setting — both on highways leading into a big city, for instance. A decade after one of them gets electronic tolls, it will be about 30 percent more expensive on average than a similar tollbooth without it. There are no shortage of examples: the Golden Gate Bridge, the George Washington Bridge and the Tappan Zee Bridge, among them.
”You may be less aware you’re paying the toll,” said Ms. Finkelstein, now an associate professor at M.I.T., ”but you’re paying a higher toll than you used to.”
The implications of this go well beyond highways. We increasingly live in an E-ZPass economy, in which bills are paid online, corporate cafeterias are going cashless and people take along their debit card, instead of cash, when they leave the house. Last year, 55 percent of consumer spending was done electronically, mainly with credit and debit cards, while checks accounted for less than 25 percent and cash only 20 percent, according to Visa. As recently as 2003, only 45 percent of spending was done electronically.
The E-ZPass economy is indisputably more convenient. It saves time and frustration. But the old frustrations that came with cash also brought a hidden benefit: they forced you to notice that you were spending money. With electronic money, it’s much easier to be carefree.
Marketers understand this dynamic well, which is a big reason they promote refillable gift cards and other forms of money that don’t feel like money. Part of what’s so intriguing about Ms. Finkelstein’s work is that it suggests that government officials may be coming to understand the dynamic, too.
The idea that hidden taxes — and tolls are really a kind of tax — could lead to higher taxes goes back decades. Milton Friedman famously came to regret his role in creating the withholding system for income taxes during World War II, because it eventually made people forget how much they were paying in tax. ”It never occurred to me at the time,” he wrote in his autobiography, ”that I was helping to develop machinery that would make possible a government that I would come to criticize severely as too large, too intrusive, too destructive of freedom.”
Even economists who don’t share Mr. Friedman’s political views agree with the larger point that how taxes are collected, and not just the underlying tax rate, matters. ”We need to take seriously the possibility that people are not paying attention to the tax code,” said Raj Chetty of the University of California, Berkeley, who has been conducting some fascinating experiments on semi-hidden taxes.
Mr. Chetty argues that the complexity of today’s tax code ends up aggravating inequality. Both rich and poor families face a dizzying spectrum of tax laws, from carried-interest rules to the earned-income tax credit. But affluent families are better able to navigate the system, often by hiring an accountant. Also, the little day-to-day taxes, like highway tolls, mean a lot more to a moderate-income family.
Ms. Finkelstein obviously can’t prove that electronic tolls cause prices to rise by making drivers less aware of them. Neil Gray, the head of government affairs at the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, disputes her argument and says setting tolls is more complicated than Ms. Finkelstein suggests.
But she makes a spirited case for her conclusion. She has considered a number of alternate explanations for the increases and says the evidence doesn’t support them. At the very least, electronic systems do seem to make it easier for toll collectors to increase prices.
There is one notable exception to the trend, though: the good old Garden State. Tolls on the parkway itself have increased only once in the last 50 years, back in 1989, when they were raised to 35 cents. (In the last few years, the price at each tollbooth has doubled, but highway officials have also removed half of the tolls, keeping the effective price unchanged.) Even after E-ZPass, the Garden State Parkway remains a relative bargain.
Of course, Ms. Finkelstein discovered that tolls don’t usually rise as soon as an electronic system arrives. The increases tend to come a number of years later, once electronic payment becomes old hat.
On the Garden State, the first E-ZPass system was installed in 1999. And guess what New Jersey’s governor, Jon S. Corzine, has recently been talking about? Raising the tolls on the parkway for the first time in almost 20 years.