LENOX — Frequent Massachusetts Turnpike users from the Berkshires should get the same toll discounts as their Boston-area counterparts.
South Berkshire state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli delivered that message Thursday night at the seventh and final public hearing on the new All-Electronic Tolling (AET) fee structure taking effect next month.
Citing deep discounts for residents of Charleston, Chelsea and other eastern Massachusetts communities, Pignatelli called on state transportation officials to extend the savings westward.
"I have a friend in West Stockbridge who is a nurse traveling to Baystate [Medical Center in Springfield,]" he said.
The veteran lawmaker said he's filed special legislation seeking a commuter rate for those who hop on the MassPike and head east for their jobs.
If the Massachusetts Department of Transportation board approves the new toll rates at their Oct. 6 meeting, they take effect October 28.
That's also the go-live date for the AET system along the 125-mile Interstate 90. The 16 overhead gantries installed along the turnpike will collect tolls electronically, replacing 26 toll plazas which will be demolished by the end of next year.
Motorists with Massachusetts EZPass transponders will pay the lowest tolls, with out-of-state EZPass holders the second highest fees.
If vehicles have no transponder, driving the full length of the pike will cost $11.70, compared to $6.15 for EZPassMA users. The nearly double fee is due, in part, to a 30 cent surcharge at each gantry to cover the cost of billing the drivers by mail.
The free transponders will be distributed during Lee Founders Weekend Today through Sunday and the Lenox Apple Squeeze on Sept. 24-25. They're also easily available online at massdot.state.ma.us.
However, Pittsfield state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier felt many of her constituents may be reluctant to get a transponder, occasionally using the MassPike or maybe traveling to Boston once or twice a year.
"Who is going to pay this almost double rate? Seniors living in the Berkshires," she said.
For six years, MassDOT under two administrations has been planning for electronic toll-taking with three goals in mind: increase public safety, decrease traffic jams and increase air quality, according to the agency's highway administrator Tom Tivlin.
"In my 29 years of public service, I don't know of any other program that could accomplish all three at once," he said.
Tivlin noted toll booths lend themselves to many rear-end collisions and result in 800 driver-hours lost each day stopping to pay the toll or slow down for the EZPass lane. Electronic toll collecting also will save motorists tens of thousands of gallons of gasoline each year.
As for the 510 toll-takers and associated staff losing their jobs, MassDOT has been working with their union to retrain them for other state highway positions.
"The person who was taking tolls may now be pushing snow this winter," he said
Contact Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233