WBUR

Mass. Seeks To Eliminate Tollbooths For Cashless System

The Tobin Bridge tollbooths are slated for removal in the spring of 2014. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The Tobin Bridge tollbooths are slated for removal in the spring of 2014. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

BOSTON — In the near future, drivers in Massachusetts may no longer need to worry about having cash on hand as they hit toll roads.

The state Department of Transportation is planning on replacing every tollbooth in Massachusetts with electronic tolling systems that read E-ZPass transponders in cars and send monthly bills to drivers who use toll roads without passes. The new system would be entirely cashless and faster, but could put some 400 toll workers out of a job.

‘But We’ve Always Done It This Way’

In 2009, two months after a lack of tollbooth workers along the Mass Pike on Easter Sunday had traffic backed up for miles, leaving drivers in some locations waiting as long as two hours to pay, Gov. Deval Patrick signed legislation creating a new Department of Transportation. MassDOT puts highways, mass transit, civil aeronautics and the Registry of Motor Vehicles into one streamlined organization.

“We’re trying to look at doing things faster, more efficiently and provide more information to the public,” said MassDOT Highway Administrator Frank DePaola. To emphasize the change in thinking his department gives out buttons that read: “But we’ve always done it this way.” The slogan has a red circle and slash through it.

"This is a campaign we started to try to encourage our employees to starting thinking differently," says Mass. Highway Adminstrator Frank DePaola. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“This is a campaign we started to try to encourage our employees to starting thinking differently,” says Mass. Highway Adminstrator Frank DePaola. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“This is a campaign we started to try to encourage our employees to starting thinking differently, out of the box, so to speak,” he said.

That’s figuratively and literally out of the box — the Highway Department is planning on doing away with every tollbooth in Massachusetts. MassDOT says by spring 2014* the tolls on the Tobin Bridge will be gone, and within three years so will the rusting toll plaza boxes on the the Mass Pike. They’ll be replaced with state-of-the-art electronic tolling — a system of over-the-road sensors to read E-ZPass transponders in cars. And for those without the devices, DePaola says, a monthly bill will come in the mail.

“The high speed cameras will capture very high resolutions of the license plates,” DePaola explained. “Through the national database we’ll look up the registration of that vehicle. The technology is such now that it is possible to take cash out of the system, and cash transactions take time.”

And time is big money on Massachusetts toll roads. On an average weekday, tolls are collected from 574,000 cars on the Tobin Bridge and Mass Pike. Last year, the state took in $325 million.

The new electronic system will be entirely cashless and faster. No longer will you have to slow down for a sensor to read your E-ZPass transponder, or squirm in search of loose change.

Tollbooth Workers

Forty-five to 50 cents of each cash transaction on the Pike and Tobin Bridge goes to pay toll workers’ salaries. There are 410 unionized toll takers working Massachusetts roads and their average wage is $33 an hour — costing the state $55 million a year.

“The toll collectors that we employ … have done their job admirably over these years. The time has come that that position, in the near future, won’t be required.”
– MassDOT's Frank DePaola

Peggy T., who collects cash at Exit 13 on the Mass Pike, says they earn their pay.

“We get called names, spit at, thrown things at, people smash things in our hands,” she said. “We get abused out here. It’s abusive. That’s why we get paid what we get paid.”

The new electronic toll system doesn’t need legislative approval, but it will cost $100 million to build and install. Highway Administrator DePaola says that by eliminating the toll takers the system will pay for itself in two or three years.

“The toll collectors that we employ now and have employed for many years have done their job admirably over these years,” DePaola said. “The time has come that that position, in the near future, won’t be required.”

The toll takers union wouldn’t comment for this story while their new contract is under negotiation.

“Our plan is to retain many of them working in the back office systems, so to speak, for toll collection and possibly provide training for other [Department of Transportation] positions,” DePaola said.

Raising Tolls

The new electronic system includes a plan to raise tolls every other year to keep pace with inflation, and DePaola says there could be other changes.

“With the electronic tolling format, it would allow us to look at other potential tolling locations,” he said.

MassDOT Highway Administrator Frank Depaola. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

MassDOT Highway Administrator Frank Depaola. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Among the roads being considered for tolls is Route 3, south of Braintree. The road would be widened so tolls could be added for special hot lanes, so drivers who want to go faster would have to pay.

Paying extra is just fine with Matt Talmadge, of Westfield, who was taking a break the other day at the Mass Pike plaza in Natick.

“I don’t have a problem tolling maybe some other highways or something like that,” he said.  “I’m from western Mass. You want to do [Interstate] 91? That’s fine. If we need it for the money, I’m for it. And the people that use it pay for it, and the people that don’t use it don’t have to worry about it.”

Thirty-five states have toll roads, but Massachusetts has reciprocity agreements with just New Hampshire and Maine, and is currently negotiating deals with Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.

When the new system goes into effect, drivers from other states will have their license plates photographed and they’ll get bills at the end of the month. That’s a problem for Roxanne Espesito, of Syracuse, N.Y., who was driving the Mass Pike the other day.

“That’s an issue right there,” she said. “They need to take care of the people from out of state, like me. I don’t like any surprises at the end, I like to pay up front.”

For DePaola, the solution to that problem is moral persuasion.

“If you’re out of state and you don’t pay the toll then we will just have to hope, that through your personal honesty, you will pay that bill. And if you don’t, possibly the next time you’re in the state your reception won’t be quite so friendly,” DePaola said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the timeline for removal of the Tobin Bridge tollbooths. The tollbooths are slated for removal during the spring of 2014.

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  • http://www.openeyesvideo.com/ Glenn C. Koenig

    To Governor Deval Patrick

    A few years ago, I heard stories about how thousands of Fast Lane pass holders had been overcharged because a flaw in the system classified their cars as trucks.

    For years, I have refused to get a transponder for good reason. The driver has no recourse if there is an error in the system. Where is my receipt when I drive under a toll reading device? If the system says I went through a toll station and I know I didn’t, how can I prove that? If the system overcharges me, where is the evidence I can bring to show that this occurred?

    The point is, the entire system is one sided. The state collects the information and I have no idea if it’s working properly or not. Then the bill comes the following month and I’m supposed to remember where I was, and further, without contemporaneous records, be able to contest it if there’s an error? And how long will it take the state to correct such errors? You know the answer … eons!

    My answer? No way!

    So now, the proposal is that they will just read my license plate. I can just see the fraud now. People painting a 3 on their plate to look like an 8 to fool the system into billing someone else. Or even fake temporary plates that can be removed at the end of the trip and stored in the trunk. Right? The open door for fraud is immense. Sure, you have high resolution cameras, right? They can see through caked on snow and ice? (or perhaps I get to drive for free if the conditions are so bad?) Are human beings going to look carefully at the images to see if the plate is genuine or a fraud? Who’s going to pay for that? I doubt a machine can really tell every possibly fraudulent plate.

    OK, perhaps some of those scenarios may be far fetched, but what about the state itself? What about software errors in the system such as the “car as truck” fiasco a few years ago? What if the state’s system is cleverly hacked by outsiders to avoid charging certain drivers and overcharging others? What about corruption from inside the state, where extra trips are randomly added to driver’s bills, perhaps only 35 cents here and there (the current Mass Pike Toll if driving from 128 to Framingham) to avoid immediate detection?

    So, here’s my request: That there be a method by which drivers can receive information at the time the toll is registered. When Fast Lane was first implemented, years ago, I pictured a device in my car that would print out a slip, like a cash register receipt, every time I passed through a toll station, confirming the date, time, and amount I was being charged (and printed more clearly than the grainy Mass Pike receipts of today!). That way, if there was an error, I could contest it right away, instead of waiting an entire month.

    OK, so that would be a colossal waste of paper.

    But I am requesting that if you pass a law to automatically charge me tolls as I drive, that the state is required to notify me each and every time I’m charged, on the spot. You can send a text to my cell phone. Or send an Email message to me immediately. Or, perhaps, send a signal that a smart phone app (that I can download for free) can receive and register the toll in an internal list, so that I can later upload that to my computer to compare with the bill that comes at the end of the month. Or the state provides a unit that I can buy, at my option, to place in my car that shows when a toll has been charged, with read-only access from my computer.

    Something! I need something to give me a legal leg to stand on, rather than just be faced with a bill from the state that I must pay without question. Otherwise, it’ll be time for a class action lawsuit. I’m sure it’s unconstitutional to just charge me without providing me a means to defend myself.

    - Glenn Koenig

    Arlington, Mass.

    • Tom

      Glenn,

      Do all of us commuters a favor and please stay home. Seriously. If you are unwilling to join the 20th century and get a FastLane tag, then you don’t deserve to use the roadways. I get a monthly statement from MassDOT. If there is an error (and there never is) then I can follow up myself. That is different from any credit or debit account in the world how exactly? Eliminating the tool booths and cash lanes is an idea LONG overdue.

      • jessicaplavin

        The snotty, condescending government employee.

        • Alex Fitch

          Why exactly do you think he is a government employee? And frankly when people say things that sound uniformed and illogical they should be condescended to since that is the only way people feel guilty enough to research before they comment. I happen to agree with Bobert that a pay as you go system would be great for maintaining privacy, but Glenn’s attitude showed just as much disdain as Tom’s. Read, learn and engage. Three things people could do more of.

      • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

        what would be better would be to eliminate the tolls like we were promised. will they be decreasing the tolls by half now that their labor cost which they claim is half is now gone?

      • nancy

        Wish they would allow those of us without cars to get one to use for when we rent. I’d love to have a FastLane tag.

      • SeaLioness

        You *do* realize there are vehicles that use the Pike and the Ted Williams Tunnel that are not commuters and do not use those roadways often enough to justify a FastLane tag? Last I checked, Logan was the only international airport for all of New England. And unless magic fairies have made Route 2 a true interstate (instead of a backwoods mess), the Pike is the only way to travel west of Worcester without ripping your hair out. Lest you have an attack of “oh, well, there can’t be that many of THEM”, try spending some time with the comparative data on FastLane versus manned booth usage, especially on weekends and holidays.

      • http://www.openeyesvideo.com/ Glenn C. Koenig

        I’m not insisting on continuing to use cash! I’m only asking for good accounting that’s actually useful to me. Look, if I can get a smartphone app that can tell me which MBTA bus is on the route I want to ride and exactly when it will arrive at my stop, then the state can certainly arrange to send me a text when I go through a toll booth.

    • http://twitter.com/curiositykt curiositykt

      There’s recourse, I have gotten a wrong charge, I called, they fixed it. No problem.

      • http://www.facebook.com/carolynxruss Carolyn Russ

        I agree, I have had the same experience, the appeal was all done by mail and it worked out fine.

    • http://www.facebook.com/carolynxruss Carolyn Russ

      wow, you don;lt even understand how the transponders work. You don’t get billed based on your license plate, that’s just a fail safe. It is an electronic pulse from the transponder. I have never been incorrectly billed. I use the Fast Pass throughout the US in states that have them. I take it in rental cars and just give the Mass DOT notice of the tempororary use. The system bills my credit card monthly and I get s statement. I even get a discount on the Logan and Cambridge toll booths. I am tired of sitting in line behind people like you who dawdle in front of all the lanes looking for change so that I can’t get to the Fast Lane. If you use a computer, a cell phone, a credit card, a debit card, you are already providing your info -

      • http://www.openeyesvideo.com/ Glenn C. Koenig

        No, the proposal is to read license plates if you don’t have a transponder. From what I understand, it’s not just a fail safe. Look, I’m self employed, lower middle class income, and the state is just terrible managing my sales tax account, and has now screwed up on penalties for medical insurance (charged me even though there was no way for me to buy insurance). When I call the Department of Revenue, I get grumpy people half the time or even busy signals. You’re telling me that this system works *much* better than the rest of the state bureaucracy? OK, I’ll take your experience into consideration. But I’d like to hear from people who did have problems that needed to be resolved and what happened to them.

  • bobert

    Privacy?? I am glad to pay tolls. But I do not want my lawful travel being tracked by my government.

    Allow me to buy a toll transponder, and charge it up like a pay-as-you go cell phone. People just do not appreciate how much information is being gathered by the government about their completely lawful behavior.

    • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

      i think its too late but i agree 100%

    • dust truck

      You think the gov’t doesn’t track your cell phone??? lolz

      • http://www.facebook.com/kyle.rose Kyle Rose

        Seriously. I don’t want the government tracking me any more than bobert does, but thinking that silly things like “laws” will stop politicians, bureaucrats, and law enforcement from doing things you don’t like is naïve. If you drive on the roads, you’re going to be tracked unless you figure out some way to fool all the possible sensors they set up, and not get caught trying to evade their nets.

        Remember the next time you’re in the voting booth that all this invasion-of-privacy stuff is fueled by bipartisan scare tactics used to promote the war on drugs, the war on terror, etc. Remember and be dismayed.

        • bobert

          Well, I agree with you, but I also believe that if you can avoid giving people who can violate your rights any reason to find you interesting, you’re that much better off.

          • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

            has it come to that in america?

          • crescentfang

            Yes!

          • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

            you are now on the list

          • crescentfang

            I am sure I have been there since the first time I voted Libertarian. Of course, Topsfield reported an official vote count of zero for the Libertarian candidate that year, so maybe it was later.

          • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

            or maybe they already scooped up all the libertarians in topsfield

          • crescentfang

            No, they just didn’t program the optic reader to count the votes and then certified the totals and sent it in even though zero was obviously impossible. The local paper also published the totals for three towns on the front page without commenting about the strange lack of votes in one town until the following week when the Libertarians protested and forced a recount. Vote totals count even for losers since they effect the barriers raised to getting on the ballot the next time around.

            There is a reason why the Tea Party runs in Republican primaries rather than setting up their own party. The game is too heavily rigged in favor of the main parties.

          • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

            perhaps we should start programming the diebold machines ourselves. the plans are online for a remote vote rigging device that costs about $20 at radioshack

        • bobert

          If you avoid getting yourself into new databases whenever possible, you’re also better off. Be a small target, AND don’t make unnecessary noise.

      • bobert

        Do you think they need additional tools?

    • jefe68

      There are already cities using cameras to catch people going through red lights.

      In Germany they have this technology down that it also works for speeding.
      They mail you the ticket.

      By the way, you’re on a computer. Do you use FB? Or buy anything online?
      If so you’re information is being gathered and tracked. Do you object to corporations following you around online?

      • SeaLioness

        And there are also parades of people in traffic court, arguing against the validity of the red light camera violations. Given the standard of excellence MassDOT holds itself to (*snort*) I cannot possibly anticipate any issues with the state obligating itself to track fast-moving vehicles in variable weather conditions and then accurately processing the data acquired. (double *snort*)

  • Leslie

    I like the toll takers. Most of them at least. It’s easier with the fast Travel lanes, and the travel lanes like then have in NH on 95, but the smiling face, how are you, and a thank you count for a lot.
    Thenyou also will have more unemployed people,

  • jefe68

    “We get called names, spit at, thrown things at, people smash things in our hands,” she said. “We get abused out here. It’s abusive. That’s why we get paid what we get paid.”

    Well look at the bright side, no more abuse.

  • http://www.justinlocke.com/author.htm Justin Locke

    Just curious, once the new system is paid for, will tolls go down?

    • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

      well it should go down by half according to what they say the labor cost is but we all know that instead it will be higher

      • http://www.justinlocke.com/author.htm Justin Locke

        Well I guess it was a rhetorical question. :-)

      • http://www.facebook.com/kyle.rose Kyle Rose

        All other things being equal, I’d prefer that half of the tolls go to improving the roads rather than going to line the pockets of unskilled laborers earning $33/hr to make my commute miserable. But since we know it’ll just all end up in the general fund and get blown on whatever the legislature’s pet project du jour is, it would probably be most productive simply to reduce the tolls.

        Good luck with that. :-)

        • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

          toll money is like crack for beacon hill

    • Will

      Hahaha, you must’ve forgot that we’re in Massachusetts for a second :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

    hmmm i thought the tolls were supposed to be temporary untill the Pike was paid for. now they admit that they will raise the tolls every other year and are looking to expand the tolls. its already a fortune just to drive into and out of boston. i have had enough of this bs

    • Marty Garvey

      Temporary?? There you go believing something you were told by a politician. You need to stop doing that.

      • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

        i just wish everyone else was not so easily mislead

  • X-Ray

    A pilot program should be tried first to see if the cockamamie scheme would
    really work. There are many pitfalls. For example, how would payment be
    enforced, especially from out-of-state and foreign users? How much would
    enforcement cost? How would disputes be resolved. How much would the billing and
    mailing costs be relative to the collected amounts?

    • Marty Garvey

      The pilot program has been run in several other states. I get a bill from Florida every time I visit there. The system works perfectly, and we should have it as soon as possible.

      • http://www.openeyesvideo.com/ Glenn C. Koenig

        Perfectly to you perhaps. But I’d like to see the statistics on the rate of problems, and I’d like to see how they were resolved.

    • http://www.openeyesvideo.com/ Glenn C. Koenig

      Good question! I’d also like to know these things.

  • crescentfang

    A lot of people are going to be getting toll bills for roads they have never driven on. Plus, once this system is in place, it will be easy to make every road in the “Commonwealth” a toll road. “Big Brother” never had technology like this but he was able to keep everyone in fear through constant monitoring.

    • dudebrah

      No they won’t. Every car is photographed. If they can produce a photograph of your car going through, then you were there.

      • crescentfang

        Right, and you are going to take a day off and go to court to contest it? I made the mistake of using a dual use (cash/transponder) booth in some other state and got sent a fine and picture of my car. I was there but I did pay the toll. Should I have driven hundreds of miles to contest it?

        Besides, I don’t have a transponder because I grew up with books like 1984 and having the government tracking me is completely unacceptable to me.

        • SafetyFirst

          newsflash – the government is tracking you already. You are using a computer, connected to the internet. The govt can tell exactly who you are, what sites you’ve visited, where you are physically sitting right now etc etc. I assume you have a cellphone as well right? It probably has GPS in it so they can tell exactly where you are every second of the day. If you think you aren’t being tracked, or that they can’t track you, it simply shows your lack of knowledge about how technology works.

        • dudebrah

          Oh for God’s sake. What if Deval Patrick comes to your house and shoots you in the face? You don’t have to drive anywhere to contest anything. You mail it in, because unlike you, the system is actually reasonable.

    • Michael Beatt

      funny you should say that, I got a letter today saying i have to pay the state of MA 55 dollars because the wifes car supposedly went through a toll without paying. the funny part is that car has never been in the state of MA, and wife and car were both at her work in St.Louis MO on the date and time the car went through the toll booth without paying. Bunch of crooks.

  • Jenna Smith

    $33/hour? For 40 hours/week, 50 weeks/year, that’s $66K.

    That is ridiculous and wasteful. The ultimate patronage job. Get rid of them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/carolynxruss Carolyn Russ

    In Florida and other states you can buy the toll transpinder at a conveneince store or CVS and just load the value online. If they offered that here in MA, more people would get the transponders. A lot of people don;lt understand how easy it is to use it, especially older people.

    • http://twitter.com/curiositykt curiositykt

      you can buy them at any rest stop on the mass pike, and probably other places as well!

      • Will

        “you can buy them at any rest stop on the mass pike” That’s news to me. Last I checked you could only purchase one in Auburn or Boston, which for someone in, say, Pittsfield or Springfield can be a BIT incovenient.

        • Ockham

          You can buy them at any rest-stop up and down the Pike, not just Auburn and Natick. You can also buy them at any AAA office, any RMV office, and any Herb Chamber’s dealerships. You’ve been able to do this going on two years now.

    • http://www.openeyesvideo.com/ Glenn C. Koenig

      Really. Why can’t we do that here?

  • http://twitter.com/LowellPeabody LowellPeabody

    great idea!

  • http://www.twitter.com/zacmacinnes Zac Macinnes

    I can’t believe the tollbooth workers mark $33/hour. Woof.

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