Technology Eases the Ride to Higher Tolls
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.
A discussion of Amy Finkelstein’s EZ-Tax: Tax Salience and Tax Rates from the NBER (local copy).
Abstract: This paper tests the hypothesis that the salience of a tax system affects equilibrium tax rates. To do this, I analyze how toll rates change after toll facilities adopt electronic toll collection. Unlike manual toll collection, in which the driver must hand over cash at the toll collection plaza, electronic toll collection automatically debits the toll amount as the car drives through the toll plaza, thereby plausibly decreasing the salience of the toll. I find robust evidence that toll rates increase following the adoption of electronic toll collection. My estimates suggest that, in steady state, toll rates are 20 to 40 percent higher than they would have been without electronic toll collection. Consistent with the hypothesis that decreased tax salience is responsible for the increase in toll rates, I also find evidence that the short run elasticity of driving with respect to the actual toll declines (in absolute value) following the adoption of electronic toll collection. I consider a variety of alternative explanations for these results and conclude that these are unlikely to be able to explain the findings.