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Pa. Turnpike has pegged 25 percent E-ZPass price differential as break point for adoption vs. cash

- Last modified: May 31, 2013 at 12:48 PM

The toll increase earlier this year for drivers using the Pennsylvania Turnpike wasn't just any old fare hike.

According to market research the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission previously conducted, a number of people who still pay cash instead of using the E-ZPass electronic payment system said they would hit a tipping point to switch once E-ZPass could save them about 25 percent per trip.

The January 2013 increase, which was 2 percent for E-ZPass users and 10 percent for cash payers, achieved this differential, said Carl DeFebo, commission spokesman.

Initial numbers indicate the newest disparity is having an effect. Toward the end of last year, about 68 percent of turnpike toll payers used

E-ZPass, DeFebo said. The amount bumped up quickly to about 72 percent for the first part of this year, he said

The commission is working toward a date around 2018 when it will start using an all-electronic tolling system, and the differential is a way to help increase E-ZPass use between now and then, DeFebo said.

It's also a way to cover the fact that it is more expensive to process tolls paid in cash, he said.

Still, not all businesses are jumping on the E-ZPass bandwagon despite more pronounced savings.

Employees of Lancaster County-based engineering and landscape architecture firm ELA Group Inc. are on the turnpike "so sporadically" that it still has them pay with cash instead of getting E-ZPass for all the company's vehicles, said Lori Bomboy, human resources director.

It's hard to say when, if ever, the firm would go to E-ZPass because accounts would be one more thing for the firm's accounting department to add to the mix, and there'd be a new set of equipment to keep track of just for a few trips, she said.

With cash, employees are simply reimbursed as part of the existing expense process, Bomboy said.

Before the latest fare hike, there was about a 17 percent savings with E-ZPass, according to the turnpike commission. The new discount average is front and center on the commission's website.

Percentage savings are averages for trips on the turnpike.

For example, a trip for midstate drivers in a typical passenger car between the Harrisburg East and Harrisburg West Shore exchanges would result in a $1.40 cash charge or a $1.02 E-ZPass charge based on the new toll differentials that went into effect in January, according to the turnpike's trip calculator.

The turnpike commission has set E-ZPass tolls lower than for people using cash since 2011.

Lancaster County-based Lester R. Summers Inc., which also goes by Summers Trucking, has been using E-ZPass since before then, said John Summers, vice president of customer solutions. He's glad about the differential, however, because more people using E-ZPass is good for the business, Summers said.

People paying with cash can cause traffic to slow considerably before the firm's drivers can get past them and through the E-ZPass lanes, he said. Anything that allows the drivers to keep moving helps to save the firm and its customers money, Summers said.

Also, with about 70 drivers, it's easier to track the expenses compared with collecting individual receipts from cash transactions, he said.

The only drawback is the occasional time when the technology doesn't work, Summers said.

"It is a low percentage, but it's still a hassle," he said.

Even when the turnpike goes to all-electronic tolling, users will still be able to drive on it without an E-ZPass.

However, the commission would like those users to be as few as possible because cash would be collected after they use the service and not at the time the turnpike is used.

"So that exposes to risk a certain portion of our revenues," DeFebo said.

The same license plate recognition that is used to track down a driver who does not pay a toll — such as by a malfunction or user error — could be used to bill the person, DeFebo said.

"There will always be an option to pay on the turnpike beyond E-ZPass," he said.

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