The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) launched a program last year for commuters in the greater New York City area to pay bridge and tunnel tolls more easily.

The new program provides free, electronic cards that commuters can use to reload cash to existing E-ZPass accounts: a designated pass that allows passage through toll plazas. However, the card cannot be used for paying tolls directly at the plazas.

The MTA worked with Xerox to develop the card program to accommodate cash-only citizens.

According to the MTA, a quarter of all households in the U.S. are "unbanked," meaning they don't have bank accounts. Many don’t qualify for credit cards, so the electronic cards let commuters replenish E-ZPass accounts with cash instead.

“We realized there’s a segment of the population that has, for a variety of reasons, resisted getting an E-ZPass," said Bob Redding, senior director of new toll initiatives for MTA bridges and tunnels. “And one of them is that they either can’t get a credit card or they’re unbanked in other ways.”

When commuters need to add cash to their reloadable cards, they can do so at one of 2,500 retail locations throughout the city, including pharmacies and grocery stores. The cards use Visa’s ReadyLink reload infrastructure to reload cash to E-ZPass cards.

Having multiple retail locations for cash reloading makes it easier for account holders to replenish their accounts, Redding explained. Prior to the card program, the only way for users to add cash to their E-ZPass accounts was by visiting one of only three MTA customer service areas.

The program is already picking up momentum. Since the program began, the MTA has distributed nearly 60,000 reloadable cards and has collected roughly $2.6 million in cash reloads to E-ZPass accounts.

But E-ZPass accounts alone don’t grant vehicle access through toll plazas. Account holders must also keep transponders in their vehicles when passing through in order to gain access.

Currently the program covers toll plazas in New York City, but similar programs that support cash over an electronic system could be applied to other toll authorities, utility providers, transit agencies and public housing agencies, according to Xerox. 

Outside of New York City, other transportation agencies have taken similar approaches to providing increased payment options for accounts like E-ZPass. In the San Francisco Bay Area, commuters can use the FasTrak program for passing through bridge toll plazas.

Much like the MTA’s new program, commuters can reload cash to their FasTrak account at self-service kiosks. Unlike the MTA’s program, FasTrak doesn’t offer the capability for cash to be reloaded onto electronic cards. 

Even though nine of the area’s 10 toll plazas still accept cash, Redding said ideally, the MTA would like to move toward cashless methods for all toll payments. The MTA recently began a pilot program to go cashless at the Henry Hudson bridge toll location and won’t accept any cash now at that facility.

“There are many toll agencies across the country that are moving in the direction of more automation and less cash collection,” Redding said. “And we are not ready to go there yet, but we are looking at that.”

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.