Clarence Fanto | The Bottom Line: Ease of traffic flow worth turnpike billing woes
LENOX >> If you've been sitting in stop-and-go traffic on the MassPike this summer, as many of us have, you've probably been fuming over the chronic congestion, especially that 12-mile stretch westbound from Worcester to Sturbridge that's frequently clogged.
At the risk of over-optimism, I'm circling Oct. 28 as a red-letter day on my calendar. That's day one of all-electronic tolling on the Pike, which should speed up the traffic flow, especially on the approach to Boston and the busy intersections with interstates such as 290, 495 and 95.
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.
So far, local motorists have been focusing on whether they'll pay more, less, or about the same on their trips from the Lee interchange to Springfield and points east.
The answer from MassDOT is that some will pay more, some less. For example, as reported by State House News Service, if you have a free EZPassMA transponder, 48.5 percent of drivers will see an increase, 46.9 percent a decrease and the rest will pay the same.
If you have no transponder, driving the full length of the pike will cost about $6 extra, because there's a 30 cent surcharge at each gantry to cover the cost of billing the drivers by mail.
Since those devices are easily available, anyone using the turnpike even occasionally would be foolish not to get one, and you don't have to be a Massachusetts resident. Holders of devices issued by other states such as New York can switch to the EZPassMA, which would save 45 cents per trip from Lee to Boston.
The free transponders will be distributed during Lee Founders Weekend Sept. 16-18 and the Lenox Apple Squeeze on Sept. 24-25. They're also easily available online at massdot.state.ma.us.
With a state-issued EZPassMA transponder, drivers of passenger vehicles would pay $1.55 between Lee and Springfield, and $6.15 from Lee to downtown Boston, according to the state Department of Transportation's proposed rates. Reaching Logan International Airport via the Ted Williams tunnel adds another $1.50 to the cost of the trip.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli will make a strong case to support commuter toll discounts for regular users of the turnpike — with his daily roundtrips to Beacon Hill when the Legislature is in session, he's certainly a "frequent driver."
The Lenox Democrat will get his shot when MassDOT holds its Berkshire public hearing on the rates at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 15 in the District 1 offices in Lenox at 270 Main St., where Route 7A joins the Routes 7 & 20 bypass. It's one of seven such hearings the department is holding around the state, and the feedback could result in modifications before the final vote by the agency's board of directors set for Oct. 6.
Pignatelli points out that the toll-collection locations approved by the Patrick administration give drivers in Springfield and Worcester a free local ride since those cities are gantry-free. For example, there's no "electronic eye" toll collection between exits 4 and 6 in the Springfield area.
Whether MassDOT will be receptive to his commuter tax proposal remains to be seen, but obviously a large turnout of like-minded turnpike users at the public hearing in Lenox would improve the odds.
The beauty of the electronic system is that drivers can sail through at full speed. If you're a nontransponder motorist, cameras at each gantry will snap photos of license plates so bills can be mailed out.
According to state officials, the new system will collectively save drivers more than 280,000 hours and up to 875,000 gallons of fuel a year, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions by up to 7,800 tons annually.
The benefits won't reach full throttle overnight; demolition work may slightly disrupt travel through toll plazas for the first 30 days.
The tolling system developed by Raytheon has encountered some pushback from privacy advocates since the technology includes a "hot list" allowing the gantries to keep an "eye" out for specific license plates.
State DOT chief Stephanie Pollack has explained that the "hot list" is not designed to catch speeders but would be reserved for Amber Alerts or, as she put it, "a very narrow set of immediate public safety emergencies." She said the department would secure and then dispose of the data once it has served its purpose of billing.
"There's always a risk when you have data," she conceded, adding that MassDOT only releases information to authorities under a subpoena; the subject of the subpoena is alerted and given an opportunity to quash it.
In the age of constant internet and social media use, privacy is largely a relic of the past, sad to say.
There's also a human cost to the new system: About 510 full- and part-time toll collectors are affected, though some will get other jobs with MassDOT. Early-retirement incentives will be offered to 312 workers hired before Jan. 31, 2014.
It's also worth noting that, like all flat taxes, this toll system is regressive, since it imposes a greater burden on those who can least afford to pay.
But on the whole, the advent of all-electronic overhead toll collection is worth a warm welcome, especially if it succeeds in speeding the flow of traffic.
Contact Clarence Fanto at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.
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