Clarence Fanto | The Bottom Line: Dawn of electronic tolls should ease Turnpike traffic flow

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LENOX >> With the Memorial Day holiday weekend approaching, Massachusetts Turnpike motorists have good reason to expect they'll be fuming over stopped traffic, especially at lengthy toll booth backups. But this should be the last summer of stop-and-go travel on I-90.

The state is finally introducing what motorists in New Hampshire, Maine, Florida and other states have enjoyed for the past few years: smoother traffic flow thanks to those spaceship-resembling overhead gantries that scan signals from windshield transponders while you fly through, barely needing to slow down.

Beginning in October, the all-electronic tolling system, also known as open-road tolling, is expected to be activated, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli confirmed. Although it won't be a cure-all assuring free-flowing travel at all times, the Lenox Democrat pointed out, it should help.

"It's the future, embracing new technology," said Pignatelli, who put close to 60,000 miles on his vehicle last year, mostly on day trips to and from the State House in Boston since he prefers to return home each night.

"It would be foolish not to have a transponder," he said, adding that he believes the new system will work out better than he first expected.

Without a free transponder, known in this state as E-ZPass, you'll have to pay a surcharge on the toll as a "Pay by Plate" traveler. Cameras will record your license plate number, allowing the state to send a bill. Ignoring it is not an option, since overdue fees mount up, and the state RMV will refuse registration renewals after four months of nonpayment.

No longer will tolls be collected at the pike's 24 exits; the 16 overhead gantries will be placed at various locations along the highway. For Berkshire drivers heading east, there'll be one in Lee (none in West Stockbridge) and another in Blandford. Charges will be based on distance traveled, but MassDOT has determined that the system will be "revenue neutral" so it will cost just about the same as now to go from Lee to Boston.

But, as keen observers have pointed out, since there won't be a toll device between every exit, motorists will be able to enter or leave some sections of the interstate without a charge.

According to MassDOT public affairs official Jacquelyn Goddard, "the decision was made at the executive level that it would not be cost-effective to install gantries at entrance and exit points that are so close together in terms of distance."

For example, there's no electronic toll gizmo between Westfield and Ludlow. This will eliminate typical congestion for Berkshire motorists leaving the Pike to head north toward Vermont or south to Springfield and beyond on I-91. Likewise, if you're exiting south of Worcester to take I-290 through Springfield to I-495, no toll backup there.

The system is already in place above the Tobin Bridge in Boston if you're of a mind to take a field trip to see how it works.

The state also plans to replace temporary electronic signs along major highways describing the length of travel time to the next major interchange with permanent signs, part of a new real-time traffic management system.

Assuming this all works out as well as planned, we can look forward to an easier ride on the Pike.

But beware of Boston and New York City drivers. A study by GfK, an independent global market research company, has come up with some disturbing findings.

New York drivers top the list as the most rude, prone to road rage, followed by Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and in fifth place, Boston.

Texting is rated as the worst offense, followed by tailgating, sudden lane-switchers, swervers, speeders, crawlers, lane-drifters and horn-honkers.

As reported in the Boston Globe, 77 percent of those surveyed see dangerous speeding, 76 percent have observed multi-tasking, and 68 percent witnessed aggressive tailgating. One out of five drivers felt physically threatened by another.

Nearly half of all U.S. drivers consider other motorists to be unsafe.

Since Big Brother will be watching us from overhead to collect our tolls, how about a surveillance system to detect, and punish, those deemed too dangerous to drive?

Contact Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com.


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