New open road tolling program ready to roll on Mass Pike

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BOSTON — Massachusetts drivers can expect to see a lot more technology on the roads later this year when the Department of Transportation begins to roll out its all-electronic tolling program and a new real-time traffic management system.

The most immediately noticeable change, especially for anyone who travels the Massachusetts Turnpike, will be the overhead structures being erected to support the open-road tolling system that will replace toll takers and booths.

"If you drive the Pike you've seen the overhead gantries are starting to appear that will go live by the end of the year," Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack told lawmakers Tuesday. "We will have to set new rates, but it will be revenue neutral."

The toll rates will have to change, Pollack said, because the gantries that replace toll booths are in different locations than the booths, and may be closer together or further apart. The total toll for traveling from one end of the Turnpike to the other will remain the same.

MassDOT has "no intention of actually raising the toll rates," Pollack told the House and Senate Ways and Means committees as legislators begin their work reviewing the $39.55 billion fiscal 2017 budget proposed by Gov. Charlie Baker.

Baker's budget proposal includes a $327.66 million transfer from the Commonwealth Transportation Fund for MassDOT -- a 2.2 percent decrease from the current year -- and a total of $1.187 billion for the MBTA, including the same $187 million in contract assistance the state provided this fiscal year.

After Pollack's testimony Tuesday, Sen. Thomas McGee of Lynn asked her about the potential to impose tolls on other roads in the state to generate additional revenue for transportation initiatives, citing a 2013 MassDOT report to the Legislature that detailed scenarios for the expansion of tolling.

"What opportunities do we have in terms of tolling other roads, recognizing that there's a substantial amount of dollars that could be brought in in a fair and reasonable way," McGee said. "I think that's an important discussion ... I think (the federal government is) starting to look at giving us more tools to toll some of the interstates and we want to know that so we at least can make an informed on whether or not we should go in that direction."

Pollack said MassDOT is focused on making open-road tolling on the Turnpike work for drivers and said the expansion of tolling would be "a bigger conversation" and "broader public policy question" best saved for another day.

Along with talk of more tolling, Tuesday's hearing also featured discussion of the elimination of tolls for the segment of the Turnpike from the New York border to the Weston tolls.

The tolls on the western Turnpike, Pollack said, were originally implemented to help pay off the bonds used to finance construction of the Turnpike and state law calls for those tolls to be eliminated once the bonds have been paid off as long as the road is in a state of good repair.

Those bonds will be fully paid off in January 2017, Pollack said, but the tolls will likely remain because the Turnpike is "not in a state of good repair and in fact the condition has been trending downward in recent years because we haven't been investing enough in it."

The formal "good repair" decision has not yet been made, though, the secretary said. It will likely be made final when the MassDOT Board of Directors votes on final approval of the fiscal 2017 operating budget.

By the end of the year, drivers will also start to see permanent roadside signs alerting them to the current estimated travel time on major roads, Pollack said. Dubbed the Go Time Project, the initiative seeks to give drivers the most up-to-date information while also allowing MassDOT to better study traffic patterns.

"It replaces the sort of temporary digital signs that you see that say '3 miles, 45 minutes' on some of our roadways on bad days with a network of permanent signs," she said. "They're not only better because we'll have 700 miles of state roadway by the end of the year, but the permanent signs are better because we can collect all that information and analyze all that information."

A year after the new signs go live, Pollack said, MassDOT will have "more data than literally I think we've ever had" about when and where traffic problems exist, allowing the state to better address problem areas.

"We can use that in our planning to make smarter investments to address where our bottlenecks are," she said.

In the past, Pollack has talked about making real-time traffic information available through a smartphone app so drivers can either avoid traffic all together or better plan before they hit the road.


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