The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

Some thoughts on the forthcoming 520 bridge toll system

Posted by Deliverator on February 16th, 2011

While I am normally in favor of tolls and other systems of taxation that generate revenues to pay for infrastructure where it is to be used and by those who use it, our state has a poor history of continuing to collect tolls after the cost of construction has been paid, even in cases where the original legislation authorizing the construction and tolls had specific sunset clauses. Government has a tendency to be very reluctant to give up a revenue stream once it has been established, even when such taxation is no longer (or never was) justifiable under any reasonable, expressible philosophy of taxation. With the recent, massive budget shortfall, we have seen seen increasingly desperate attempts by the government to stick their fingers in other people’s pies, with often little or no justification for why they are entitled to a slice in the first place.

It should be noted that the legislation establishing the toll does not have a sunset provision requiring the toll to be removed after the bridge is paid for, or be scaled back to maintenance levels after payment of the bonds are completed. It merely requires that “Revenue from tolling the bridge will only be used as authorized by the Legislature for bond payments, operations and maintenance within the SR 520 corridor.” This means that the toll revenue may be used to pay for anything in the 520 corridor, potentially freeing up funds to pay for budget shortfalls elsewhere. It also appears that tolls can be used to fund mass transit and not simply highway purposes, something some toll payers may disagree with strongly. Is there even a requirement to pay off the 30 YEAR bonds as quick as toll revenues allow? The original I-90 floating bridge’s tolls paid off its cost of construction in 9 years, decades ahead of projections. The current 520 bridge’s tolls were ended in 16 years. I have to wonder after all the accounting jiggery-pokery takes place, how much and for how long 520’s toll revenues will have been used to pay for highly controversial projects like Seattle’s Waterfront Tunnel?

I am also extremely opposed to electronic RFID or plate registration as the sole means of paying a toll. RFID systems have severe privacy implications that often go un-addressed or unacknowledged by implementers or are addressed dismissively. From WSDOT’s faq :

Will my privacy be protected?
Yes. Good To Go! electronic tolling Passes use radio frequency identity chips, which do not hold any personal information. For Pay By Mail, only photos of the vehicle are taken, not the driver or occupants. All personal data, including name, address and payment information, is kept confidential and privacy is protected by law. Under no circumstances is individual customer information disclosed for use by marketing firms.

This scant acknowledgment of the issues surrounding RFID systems answer falls into the dismissive category. There is essentially no anonymous way of paying this toll. You either have to register your plate and establish an account, or get an RFID badge/sticker and establish an account. Government entities have an even poorer reputation for keeping databases private (uh, Wikileaks anyone?) than commercial enterprise, who often at least have some financial/reputation impact rationale for keeping client data private and I am very loath to supply my billing information to a government agency. While they make assurances that the data stored in their databases will remain private, tolling data has been used in numerous criminal and civil cases.

Unless you deliberately shield the RFID tag in other areas, there is nothing to prevent the tag from being read at other locations by the state or by other individuals and most people are frankly not going to bother. There are countless examples of how tags can be abused (up to and including cloning of someone else’s card) by private individuals. For instance, an acquaintance of mine, Eric Butler, recently showed how a commonly available cell phone could be used to remotely read someone’s ORCA transit card and display their recent whereabouts.

WA state is one of only a few that has a law against skimming someone’s RFID data without their knowledge, but if the rewards of doing so are large enough and it can be done anonymously, with little chance of being caught, then I am doubtful that this law will have a deterrent effect.

Turning 520 into a toll bridge will undoubtedly shift a lot of traffic onto the region’s other, already crowded arterials. The particular implementation details of this toll system just give me one more reason not to use 520 and not to go into Seattle for non-essential needs.

Update: It does appear you can set up a quasi-anonymous “Unregistered Pass Account” account without deliberately disclosing identifying information by showing up in person at one of the customer service centers and paying for a pass in cash. Given that they already have equipment in place to take pictures of license plates for plate based billing, they have the technical ability to correlate a plate with an unregistered pass, effectively de-anonymizing it. This is a marginally better situation, as the government/company hired to run the system wouldn’t have your direct billing details, but you would still be carrying around an RFID tag that is chirping for all to hear/clone/whatever. They also warn that if the pass isn’t read correctly, one would be sent an inflated/surcharge bill by mail. In such a situation, you couldn’t really protest without revealing your identity.

A more desirable setup would be the ability to set up a cash only account for plate based billing. In such a situation, one wouldn’t have to carry around a chirping RFID tag and wouldn’t be disclosing more information than the state already has through a vehicle’s registration. This doesn’t appear to be possible, currently, and they are charging a $.25 extra surcharge per toll for plate based billing. How much is your privacy worth to you? One has to wonder at the rationale for this disincentive. This may be an indication that their plate image capture system functions poorly in some situations, such as gridlock traffic, when an overhead mounted camera may not have a clear shot of the plate. I wonder whether this will cause scofflaws to deliberately tailgate large trucks and the like?