Massachusetts to Begin Tollbooth Phase-Out

The system photographs license plates with overhead cameras as vehicles pass under gantries over the highway. It charges drivers with E-ZPass transponders or sends bills to those who don’t have them.

by Christian Wade, The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass. / September 26, 2016

(TNS) -- Beginning next month, drivers on the Massachusetts Turnpike won’t have to fumble for cash or coins to pay tolls or slow down to go through the E-ZPass lane.

The state Department of Transportation is replacing dozens of aging toll booths along the 138-mile Turnpike from Boston to the New York border with a cashless, electronic tolling system.

The system, developed by Raytheon as part of a 10-year, $130 million contract, photographs license plates with overhead cameras as vehicles pass under gantries over the highway. It charges drivers with E-ZPass transponders or sends bills to those who don’t have them.

The electronic system is expected eventually to replace every toll booth in Massachusetts.

MassDOT has used the high-tech gadgets on the Tobin Bridge since mid-2014 and recently installed 16 spans over the Turnpike. Cameras are expected to begin full operation by Oct. 28.

But the technology has critics. Civil liberties groups say the cashless tolling system will widen an already sprawling network of government cameras that capture, store and share data about citizens.

“There are major privacy issues at stake here,” said Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Project at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “The government and private companies are amassing huge quantities of data, not just showing where people are going every day but where they end up.”

Massachusetts doesn’t regulate how long the state and police can keep information from toll cameras or license-plate readers mounted on police cars, road signs and traffic lights. MassDOT says data it collects from cameras will be kept confidential.

In New Hampshire, police are prohibited from conducting video surveillance without warrants on all public ways, though video use is allowed on E-ZPass toll booths. Maine requires its toll-takers to delete license plate data three weeks after images are collected.

Out-of-State Drivers?

Another issue is collecting tolls from motorists who don’t use E-ZPass, or whose vehicles are registered in other states.

Massachusetts has agreements with New Hampshire and Maine to share motor vehicle registry files with the names and addresses of those whose license plates are photographed. It is negotiating similar pacts with Connecticut, New York and other states, but so far it hasn’t reached agreements.

“That raises serious questions about whether the state is going to collect enough toll money to maintain the roadway,” said Mary Connaughton, director of government transparency at the Pioneer Institute and a former member of the Turnpike Authority board.

Expanding the number of E-ZPass transponder customers, who now represent about 85 percent of motorists who pass over the Tobin Bridge, is one of MassDOT’s stated goals in switching over to a cashless tolling system.

“Many people don’t want or can’t afford E-ZPass,” Connaughton said. “So there’s always going to be a portion of the population that won’t get a transponder.”

In the first six months of the Tobin Bridge’s cashless tolls, motorists who were billed through the mail using the pay-by-plate system racked up more than $2.7 million in late fees and other charges for unpaid tolls.

At the time, the late fee was $90 per unpaid toll.

In response to a public outcry, the state waived some of those fines and capped late fees at $6 per unpaid toll.

Eliminating 500 Jobs

Pricing for cashless tolls along the Turnpike has not been set yet, but Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack has said the system will be “revenue neutral,” meaning the state will take in the same amount it now does at toll plazas.

Under proposed rates, a motorist with an E-ZPass transponder will pay $6.15 to travel the length of the Turnpike. Someone without a transponder will be charged slightly more, $6.54, which breaks down to 37 cents at each gantry plus a 60-cent administrative fee for the monthly bill.

MassDOT’s board of directors is expected to vote on the proposed Turnpike tolls at an Oct. 6 meeting.

Tolls make big bucks for the state. Last year, MassDOT took in more than $426 million from tolls on the Tobin Bridge, two harbor tunnels and the Turnpike. Combined, the state’s toll booths register more than 574,000 tolls on an average weekday.

MassDOT expects to save more than $45 million a year in expenses by going cashless. Savings will come from eliminating the jobs of more than 500 toll-takers who make an average of $30 an hour.

©2016 The Eagle-Tribune (North Andover, Mass.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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