Western Mass. drivers will see some relief with new toll gantries

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BOSTON >> Drivers in the Worcester and Springfield areas will gain some relief from Massachusetts Turnpike tolls under an all-electronic system being tested and set to go live in October.

"This fairly modest break for people I think is going to be very well received," Sen. Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat, told the News Service. Lesser noted that a portion of the sales tax paid by his constituents goes to the MBTA 90 miles away, and taxpayers around the state were on the hook for the massive costs of the Big Dig in Boston.

A recent presentation by Highway Administrator Tom Tinlin shows exits around the state's second and third largest cities are free of the gantries used to automatically charge motorists for highway usage.

"Some untolled movements may become tolled, and vice versa, based on location of gantries vs. toll plazas," the presentation notes.

Jacque Goddard, a spokeswoman for the state transportation department, confirmed that when the gantries go live, drivers in Worcester and Springfield "can scoot on and scoot off the Mass Pike between gantries and not pay a toll."

Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce President Tim Murray said it looks like drivers in his area "are receiving a well deserved break which will save them some money. This will put a little extra money in their pockets that will increase spending locally and strengthen the Central Mass economy."

If those drivers travel for longer stretches along the interstate, they would eventually be hit with tolls.

As it plans to phase out tollbooths — now located at most exits and on-ramps along the turnpike — the Massachusetts Department of Transportation plans to keep the new tolling system "revenue neutral," which the department says means the cost of driving from one end of the highway to the other will remain the same.

A roundtrip from West Stockbridge to Logan Airport and back in a car paying cash costs $17.70, according to an online toll calculator. Cars with the E-ZPass system pay $16.20 for that ride.

MassDOT, which is also rolling out all-electronic tolls on the Tobin Bridge and the Boston Harbor tunnels, reported roughly $380 million in toll revenue in 2015, including $139 million on the Western Turnpike outside of Route 128.

Drivers from Metrowest to the Berkshires had a chance at even greater toll savings earlier this year.

With bonds for the Western Turnpike expected to be paid off in 2017, MassDOT held hearings on whether to keep the tolls up so the highway could be kept in a state of good repair. In a June memo, Tinlin reported that the highway is not in a state of good repair, meaning the tolls would need to stay in place.

In September, MassDOT will present proposed rates for the more than one dozen gantries spread throughout the roughly 135-mile east-west stretch of tolled highway.

Today E-ZPass drivers pay 45 cents to travel the nine miles from West Springfield to Ludlow. Under the new all-electronic system, that ride will be free. The 25 cents E-ZPass drivers pay to travel between exits 10 and 11 in the Worcester area will likewise become free.

The contract for the all-electronic tolling went to Raytheon in 2014, and MassDOT plans to discuss contracts for demolition of toll plazas at its August meeting, according to the presentation.

The Highway Division also plans to drive up E-ZPass usage from 73 percent on the Western Turnpike and 81 percent on the Boston portion to 85 percent system-wide. E-ZPass tolls won't include a surcharge and are paid automatically.

Those without E-ZPass transponders will be billed through the mail based on their license plate. The system is now being tested, according to the presentation.


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