By Chris Henson, Creative Director
A few weeks ago — Thursday, August 7th at precisely 10:23 AM, in fact — I drove through the Downtown Tunnel connecting Norfolk and Portsmouth. I’ve gone this way many times when visiting my in-laws in Norfolk. But this time was different. I was charged a toll, and the City of Portsmouth missed the boat.
There wasn’t a tollbooth or a toll plaza or even a guy with his hand out. Just an array of cameras trained on license plates of all cars as they passed. I know this because the other day — Friday, August 15th at precisely 5:25 PM, in fact — I received a letter from Elizabeth River Tunnels with a photo of my license plate and an invoice for $2.25.
The letter admonished me for not having an EZ Pass transponder and gloated that it cost me a $1.50 fee. You see, the toll was only 75 cents. The buck-and-a-half was for all the mailing and processing and licking of envelopes they have to do to get my three quarters. The correspondence felt terse to me. It included FAQs about the tolls with information about what will happen if I don’t pay it. They could fine me as much as $100, not including shipping and handling. It extolled the virtues of the EZ Pass, a gadget I’d use once a year. And they sent me an envelope without a stamp for remittance. “Thanks.”
But more importantly, they missed a golden opportunity to promote tourism. Think about it. A license tag is read by a camera and fed into a computer, which links it to a guy from out of town. There’s a metric ton of useable data right there. Since they’d already paid for the envelope — well technically I’m paying for it — how hard would it have been to include a little information about upcoming events in the Portsmouth area? What about a coupon or two and a nicely designed invitation to come back to the Hampton Roads area and stay awhile?
We can assume a few things: 1) Portsmouth needs some revenue; and 2) I’m not the only hapless out-of-towner to get this letter. It would cost literally nothing extra to print a few coupons or information — or at the very least, some tourism web addresses — on the blank bottom half of the invoice I got. But why stop there? Why not include a colorful one-page newsletter and calendar, perhaps a new one each season, laced with incentives to turn your car around and spend some money at MacArthur Mall, see a show at nTelos Pavilion or eat at the Bier Garden? Come on, Elizabeth River Tunnels (if that really is your name), do I have to think of everything?
Meanwhile, their rush to have me pay within 30 days of the invoice date — scarcely any time at all really — got me thinking about something else. According to Wikipedia, the Downtown Tunnel was opened in 1952. Why are they only now getting around to paying for it?
Want to know more about the technology used to collect a couple of bucks from this out-of-towner? Click here: http://www.govtech.com/transportation/Get-a-Peek-at-Toll-Road-Technology.html