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NY Thruway cashless tolls: You had questions. We have answers.

Sarah Taddeo Jon Campbell
New York State Team

Goodbye, toll booths. Hello, cashless tolling.

With the New York State Thruway finally making its long-awaited switch to cashless tolling last Saturday, drivers wondered how the new system would affect their commutes and their pocketbooks. 

The new system uses overhead cameras and sensors that snap photos of license plates so drivers using the 570-mile superhighway can be billed by mail.

That means drivers no longer have the option of paying cash at the toll booths that have lined Thruway exits since it opened in 1954. E-ZPass users, meanwhile, will continue having the tolls automatically deducted from their accounts.

Cashless tolling has already been put in place on the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge in the Hudson Valley, the Grand Island Bridges near Buffalo and certain other interchanges downstate.

Readers sent us their questions about how the system works, what it costs and how they can best prepare to use it without hassle.

Here are answers to a a few of the most frequently asked questions we received:

Will tolling gantries be used for law enforcement purposes, like catching speeders? 

Under the Public Authorities Law, the Thruway Authority is authorized to use its electronic toll collection system only for the collection of tolls — not for enforcing speed limits, according to the authority.

New York State Police will continue to handle enforcement of speed limits on the Thruway.

Will tolls increase? Is there a cost difference if you don't have E-ZPass?

Thruway tolls are in line for a significant hike in 2021 — if you're not a New York-based user of E-ZPass, the multi-state program in which drivers keep a transponder in their car and have tolls automatically deducted from an account.

Tolls billed by mail would increase by 30% beginning Jan. 1 under a plan set for approval next month by the Thruway Authority Board of Directors. For out-of-state E-ZPass holders, tolls would increase by 15%.

Each mailed bill would come with a $2 surcharge under the plan, as well.

E-ZPass rates, which include a built-in discount, would remain flat for New York users. That's in part to encourage more drivers to use the automated system and cut down on the number of bills mailed out.

That means a trip in a passenger vehicle (without E-ZPass) from Exit 47 near Rochester to Exit 23 in Albany would cost $14.50 plus the $2 surcharge, up from the current $11.15 cash toll.

The standard E-ZPass toll for the same trip would remain $10.59. (You can order an E-ZPass at e-zpassny.com, at Thruway rest stops or at a number of convenience and grocery stores across the state.)

Once approved, the new plan would mark the first Thruway toll increase since 2010.

What happens if I'm driving a rental car?

Shields have been installed at all the rental car desks, including Enterprise, providing safety for both employees and customers at the Greater Rochester International Airport Friday, July 24, 2020.

Some rental-car companies equip their vehicles with E-ZPass, usually as an add-on. In that case, the rental company's E-ZPass will be billed when you pass underneath a tolling gantry. But be careful: Sometimes using the rental company's E-ZPass comes with a steep per-day surcharge, so it may cost you.

If there's no E-ZPass in the rental car, a bill will be mailed to your rental car company. And you can bet they will pass the cost on to you and likely attach a surcharge, too.

The bottom line: Check your rental agreement first.

If you want to avoid a potential surcharge and pay before it gets to the rental company, you can pay your toll online at TollsByMailNY.com within 48 hours of travel.

Visit the website and click on the "Rental/Loaner Vehicle or Future Travel" button on the main screen. Then pop in your rental car's license plate number and a form of payment and you can pay your toll.

What happens if I'm a resident of another state (or Canada)?

Motorists drive through the New Paltz toll plaza in New Paltz, NY on November 11, 2020.

If you don't have E-ZPass and you're driving a vehicle with license plates from another state, the registered owner of the vehicle will be billed by mail.

If you do have E-ZPass from another state — all or part of 18 states offer it — you can use it in New York, too. (Your toll is about to be higher, though; more on that later.) It has to be a E-ZPass, though; similar transponder programs like Florida's SunPass are not accepted in New York.

Drivers from the Canadian province of Ontario will be billed by mail. That's new as of last year, when the Thruway Authority struck a deal with the province to provide the address of the registered vehicle owner.  Prior to that, Ontario drivers were encouraged to pay their bill online, but the state had no real authority to chase them down if they didn't.

Note that the bill will be in USD, so take that into account, Canadian drivers.

A reminder: Anyone without E-ZPass, including out-of-state drivers, can pay their toll online within 48 hours of travel before even getting a mailed bill by visiting TollsByMailNY.com.

What if a vehicle's license plate is unreadable? 

This is New York's new license plate design, which the state began rolling out earlier in 2020.

The Thruway Authority contends its system has enough safeguards in place to ensure it can properly bill motorists.

The high-tech cameras on the tolling gantries capture photos of each vehicle's license plate from multiple angles. If the automatic system doesn't pick up the plate system on its own, it flags a manual review in which the photos can be enhanced and assessed by a human.

Under state law, it's the responsibility of the driver to ensure their license plate is clean, readable and unobstructed. Otherwise, the driver can face a fine of $25 to $200, according to the Vehicle and Traffic Law.

“Motorists should be fully aware of their responsibility to have clean and visible plates, and the New York State Police will enforce these vehicle traffic laws," said Jennifer Givner, Thruway spokesperson.

That said, thousands of New York motorists are driving around with plates that are peeling, a common problem that forced the state into changing vendors for the plates' laminate covering. The state DMV offers free replacements for any peeling plates.

What if I have an E-ZPass but I forgot it?

Let's say you have an E-ZPass account but you forgot your transponder at home or in another car.

In that case, the cashless tolling system will still bill your E-ZPass account if the license plate number of your car is registered under that account.

But here's the catch: You'll be billed at the higher toll-by-mail rate, according to the Thruway Authority.

That could make a significant difference, with toll-by-mail rates set to outpace E-ZPass rates by more than 35% next year. So remember to have your E-ZPass transponder attached to your windshield.

Who owns and operates the system? 

The state Thruway Authority owns the system and has the authority under the law to charge tolls to use the roadway.  

Conduent, a digital services company that operates nationwide, is contracted by the state to administer the E-ZPass and Tolls by Mail programs on the state’s behalf. 

The state worked with Kapsch, an Austrian IT company, to install and maintain the cashless tolling equipment. Cashless Tolling Constructors LLC, comprising multiple regional construction groups, installed the steel gantries and will oversee the toll plaza removal and interchange reconfiguration. 

What is the cost of the new system? 

The full cost of the project is $355 million, which includes the construction of the gantries and the removal of the toll booths from interchanges and entrances/exits, according to the Thruway Authority. 

What happens if I'm pulling a trailer or camper behind my vehicle? 

Toll gantries located at the Utica exit of the NYS Thruway. A new cashless tolling system will be in place as soon as Nov. 15.

A car pulling a camper will be considered one transaction and it can use the E-ZPass that is mounted on the car windshield, according to the Thruway Authority. The new electronic system will automatically reclassify the transaction when pulling a camper or trailer.

Cash toll rates are calculated based on the height of the vehicle, the total number of axles of a vehicle and distance traveled. Vehicle classification for E-ZPass are calculated using the height and axles of a vehicle and its towed vehicle, if applicable.

There are E-ZPass discount plans available for trucks towing “gooseneck” or “fifth wheel” campers and non-tandem commercial vehicles in specific classifications. For more, go to www.thruway.ny.gov/ezpass/discount.html#specialtowing

Do I need to have my E-ZPass installed on the windshield for it to be read? 

If you're using E-ZPass, your transponder should be mounted on your windshield to ensure the tolling gantries can read it. New York state encourages drivers to place their transponders on the inside of their windshields, behind and to the right of their rearview mirror. 

A transponder will likely not be read by the tolling gantries if it is in your cup holder or glove compartment, according to the Thruway Authority.

What happens if I don't pay the toll? 

After your travel, you'll get a bill in the mail 30 to 40 days later (assuming you don't have E-ZPass).

From there, you have 30 days to pay it. If you don't, a second bill with a $5 late fee attached will be sent 30 days later, according to the Thruway Authority.

If you don't pay it by the second due date, it becomes what's known as a "toll violation," which carries a $50 fine per trip.

From there, a motorist has 15 days to pay the violation or risk it being sent to a collection agency.

If you fail to respond to three toll violations in a five-year period, the state can suspend your vehicle registration under state law.

More:So long to the NY Thruway toll workers. These are their stories.

More:Thruway cashless tolling begins Saturday: Here's what you need to know to avoid late fees

Jon Campbell is a New York state government reporter for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at JCAMPBELL1@Gannett.com or on Twitter at @JonCampbellGAN.

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