Although the transponder program recently implemented at the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington adds convenience for drivers by allowing them to pay tolls electronically without having to slow down, there is one serious con: unexpected cost.
The transponders are a substantial factor in the $5 million in unanticipated costs owed to the contractor who is running the toll collection operation, said Greg Selstead, the state toll operations director.
The transponders are the small adhesive cards that drivers stick to their windshield to pay the toll for crossing the new Narrows bridge without having to slow down.
When the bridge opened in July, about 200,000 transponders—four times the number expected—were distributed. The company, TransCore, gets $10.65 for each transponder issued. With 200,000 given away before the toll operators began charging for them on Sept. 15, more than $1.5 million was added to what TransCore is owed.
Additionally, Selstead said, each additional transponder account and even each additional crossing with the transponder means an additional payment to TransCore.
For example, he said, the state has to pay the same 3% fee as businesses when a credit card is used. In TransCore's case, credit cards are used to replenish depleted accounts.
It all adds up to the extra $5 million, he said, and state officials are attempting to determine a way to offset some of that increase.
The transponders were considered critical to free flow of traffic across the new bridge and have succeeded admirably in that goal, committee members were told. Only once since they were instated has the backup at the tollbooths for those without transponders remotely hinted at congestion and slowdowns for electronic toll payers.
That event occurred in July on a Sunday, the one day each week when infrequent bridge users without transponders shrink the percentage of electronic toll payers from over 70% weekday rush-hour average to less than 45%.