Friday, June 1, 2012

Time to write another letter

You know, I'm always ranting on here about the dangers of government overreach and counter-productive policymaking, so much so that you might even think that's all I ever do. Well, it's not. I also enjoy baseball. And golf. So there.

But, you see... when it comes to government policies, there's stupid... and then there's stupid. The e-mail that I received in my inbox last night from the Virginia Department of Transportation and E-ZPass Virginia falls into the latter category.
Dear E-ZPass Customer, 
With Virginia’s E-ZPass program doubling over the next several years as new toll roads open, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is proposing a monthly fee of about $1 per transponder to pay for administrative and operations costs. 
VDOT has the utmost understanding that E-ZPass operations brings convenience and efficiency to toll operations.  E-ZPass allows for electronic toll collection at Virginia toll facilities and lessens the need for manual collection.  However, there is a cost to providing the service to the participating toll facilities, most of which are not operated by VDOT.  The Virginia E-ZPass program is being expanded to support several new toll facilities scheduled or expected to be opened over the next few years.  The cost associated with the enhanced distribution and specialized services for the new facilities and additional transponders requires a new business model. 
The proposed monthly fee would cover costs for:   
- Buying nearly one-half million transponders 
- Implementing a retail program where transponders can be obtained at various stores in Northern Virginia and eventually Hampton Roads 
- Providing service at select DMV locations 
- Upgrading information technology to accommodate the expanded program 
- Account management and processing of toll transactions (managing billing of all transactions) 
- Customer service and the operations of three customer service centers
The fee would also help control costs and manage the selection and demand for E-ZPass transponders.
Okay, you know what... there's just way too much for me to unpack here in a simple blog post, and this one calls for more. In times of true governmental idiocy, there is only one reasonable answer. This requires... another letter to my senators. (Note that this is a draft... I may revise this before sending it out, because I'm not sure if it properly conveys my anger and head-shaking bewilderment in response to this absurd proposal. Also note that I'll be sending this one to State Senators, not U.S. Senators. Whatever).
Dear Senator (fill in name), 
I am writing in regards to the recently proposed monthly E-ZPass fee, as announced to me in an e-mail dated May 31, 2012. The proposed fee is, quite simply, one of the most foolish and counter-productive pieces of government garbage that I have ever encountered.  
Setting aside the patent absurdity and circular nature of the argument that we all should be required to pay a fee for the right to be taxed (it's roughly equivalent to imposing a filing fee on IRS tax returns, which would make little sense), the proposal fails to meet muster in two fundamental ways. 
#1: Don't kill the golden goose 
Regardless of the costs associated with administering the E-ZPass program, it should be self-evident that those costs are lower than the traditional method of physically-manned tollbooths. In fact, the e-mail announcing the proposed fee even conceded this fact, extolling the "convenience and efficiency" that electronic toll collection affords. Therefore, we should be encouraging E-ZPass usage by any means necessary, not discouraging it via the imposition of an added fee
If this fee is indeed imposed, my wife and I will immediately be canceling our E-ZPass accounts and returning to the traditional manual method of paying our tolls. Many others will likely follow suit, which will inevitably increase the burden on the existing manual tollbooths, likely requiring new hiring of tollbooth operators and thereby increasing overall system-wide administrative costs. 
Does it cost money to raise money? Yes, of course. But any well-designed program should be able to comfortably cover its administrative costs, with room to spare. If it cannot, then the program is ill-advised at its inception, and should be scrapped in its entirety. Indeed, if these new toll roads cannot provide a net benefit to VDOT without the imposition of this fee, then the entire program needs to be revisited. Yes, indeed, you need a new business model. Clearly. This isn't it. 
#2: The supposed benefits of the plan are specious 
For the life of me, I cannot understand why E-ZPass would need to open a "retail program" in Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads, or anywhere else in the Commonwealth. In the internet age, the wild inefficiency of brick-and-mortar retail outlets has been laid bare for all to see (for examples, please consider Borders Books, Circuit City, and countless other traditional retailers that have failed to thrive in the internet age). It is hard to see why E-ZPass would prove an exception to this rule, and therefore I cannot understand why a retail program would be a necessary or efficient use of program resources. 
The entire benefit of E-ZPass to begin with is that it allows us to save costs on employees needlessly manning tollbooths. If we instead pay employees to needlessly man retail outlets, we end up basically right back where we started from, with an added expense for rent and utilities, to boot. Terrific work, folks. What are we doing here? 
As to the other costs that this fee is attempting to cover, all of these are pre-existing costs that should be built in to the existing toll fee structure. There have always been and will always be administrative costs associated with toll collection. I fail to see why the current expansion of toll roads should increase these in any meaningful way, let alone to a degree that the increased toll collection would not offset the increase.  
I fundamentally do not understand why taxpayers should be asked to pay a fee for the right to pay a toll. It's absurd, it's counter-productive, and it will ultimately prove to cost VDOT more than it saves. This policy is a disaster. If you indeed need a new business model, keep searching. These kinds of deeply flawed business models would lead a private-sector company to bankruptcy. They will do the very same thing to our public sector organizations if they are allowed to pass.
The Crimson Cavalier
Well, that should about cover it, right? I don't know, was I clear enough? Bitter enough? What do you think? This government stupidity must end, now. Or else we're seriously screwed.

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