Massachusetts' Open-Road Tolling Project to Launch Along the Massachusetts Turnpike

On Oct. 28, the state will usher in a completely electronic tolling system on I-90, replacing 26 toll plazas with 16 gantries that will automatically charge drivers as they pass under them.

by Matt Stout, Boston Herald / August 25, 2016

(TNS) — The state's expansive open-road tolling project will launch Oct. 28 along the Massachusetts Turnpike, promising to drastically reshape what many drivers will pay on parts of Interstate-90 and spark more than a year of construction along the 138-mile artery.

The launch date — which a top highway official dubbed the department's "Super Bowl" — will usher in a completely electronic tolling system on I-90, replacing 26 toll plazas with 16 gantries that will automatically charge drivers as they drive under them.

State officials emphasized that the change in rates doesn't constitute a toll hike, but depending on where drivers exit and enter the Pike — and whether they have an E-ZPass transponder — they'd pay more than they do now in some instances and less in others under proposed rates MassDOT unveiled today.

The project, which includes at least $461 million in construction and operating contracts, is already spawning questions of security, as officials have already begun collecting a plethora of data using the newly constructed gantries while they formulate a formal policy of how to handle it.

It's also created a so-called "Hot List" of license plates that will ping officials when they are picked up by a gantry, though state officials say its use will be limited to a "very narrow" set of circumstances, such as during an Amber Alert.

Day-to-day, however, drivers would see immediate changes in where tolls are collected and how.

"This is not a toll increase," Stephanie Pollack, the state's transportation secretary, told reporters in a morning briefing. She pointed to projections that on the Western Turnpike and the state's Metropolitan Highway System — made up of the Tobin Bridge, Boston tunnels and Pike east of Weston — the state would collect roughly the same $128 million and $225 million in revenue, respectfully, as they do now.

The proposed rates would need to be approved by the MassDOT board in early October following a series of public meetings.

"This is a rate-setting process designed to address how we are collecting the same amount of tolls in a different set of locations," said Pollack, who described the process as complicated. "We were not favoring any region of the state (over another)."

Overall, drivers with a Massachusetts-issued E-ZPass would pay $6.15 in tolls to travel from the New York border into Boston, as opposed to the $6.60 they do now. And those traveling to downtown Boston from the current toll in Weston would pay $1.70, compared to the current $2.

But those without an E-ZPass, and instead would be billed under a pay-by-plate system, would now pay $11.34 to go the same distance. Those with an E-ZPass issued in a different state would also pay slightly more, at $7.75.

Rates based on where drivers exit and enter the highway also fluctuate. For example, those getting on in South Boston and exiting in West Newton just west of the city would pay 70 cents more for each trip when using an E-ZPass. But those who continue on to the Weston tolls would pay 30 cents less than they do now for the same drive.

That's not the same for those without a transponder. They'd pay $1.70 more to go from South Boston to West Newton than they currently do.

The day the open-road tolling goes live also kicks off a year-plus of construction as workers tear down toll booths and reconfigure the roads. Officials warn that it's going to result in a series of lane closures as the plazas are demolished, including ones they admit will make for "choppy" delays over the first month. Road work connected to the project is expected to last until the end of 2017.

"We don't want people to wake up on Oct. 29 and say, 'Hey, I can go 70 miles per hour into the city of Boston," said Tom Tinlin, the state's highway administrator. "There will be a transition speed (around the old toll plazas)."

Under the Patrick administration, officials projected that the move toward electronic tolling could net $50 million in savings annually. But transportation officials are now saying that the projections didn't account for some operating costs and will be less.

The change will affect 500 toll booth workers and net MassDOT roughly $33 million less in personnel costs. But collection operating costs will actually only add up to $5 million in savings, and other expenses — such as billing pay-by-plate drivers — will actually increase.

"It's about public safety, it's about air quality and it's about congestion," Tinlin said of the project's benefits. "We're not going to build ourselves out of congestion."

©2016 the Boston Herald, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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