Faster travel, higher tolls proposed for Mass. Turnpike

Open-road tolling, higher travel costs at rush hour under consideration

News The Boston Globe June 20, 2007
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The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority is considering proposals that would allow Fast Lane users to cruise through tolls faster, but would charge commuters for driving during peak travel times, according to a report in the Boston Globe.

While vehicles with transponders currently have to slow down to 10 to 15 miles per hour (mph) to drive through tollbooths, the proposed expanded express lanes with high-tech sensors would allow drivers with transponders to continue through the tollbooth at highway speeds, the paper reported.

The "congestion pricing" that the Turnpike Authority in considering would charge drivers more during rush hour. The plan could include a video camera system with the ability to record license plate numbers and send out bills automatically to drivers without transponders, according to the Globe.

Reviewed yesterday by the turnpike board, the proposals are part of an effort to upgrade technology on the turnpike for the first time in a decade and potentially produce more toll revenue for the agency, the paper reported.

According to the paper, nearly 60% of turnpike motorists use Fast Lane, and on a typical workday, about 120,000 vehicles use the highway between downtown and the Allston-Brighton tolls.

The proposals, turnpike chairman John Cogliano told the paper, will "change the way we do business and dramatically improve overall operations."

Some commuters object to the proposed higher tolls during rush hour, however. Susan Hughes, 43, who commutes 45 minutes daily, told the Globe that the congestion pricing would burden either her or her employer.

"I would almost be forced into paying more," Hughes told the paper, if her employer would not adjust her hours and she had to drive to work during rush hour.

The turnpike board plans to send the details of the changes it wants in toll collection to potential bidders in August, the paper reported. State Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen said final decisions on the changes will be influenced by the findings of the state's Transportation Finance Commission, which plans to issue its recommendations this summer, which could include higher tolls, the privatization of state transportation or a higher gas tax.

The state is facing a fiscal shortfall of as much as $19 billion in road, bridge and transit maintenance over the next 20 years, the Globe reported.

The turnpike board plans to approve in October what will probably be a multiyear contract with a new toll collection company that would be set to start next March, according to the paper.

Despite the aggressive push of legislators representing western suburbs to have tolls lifted or lowered on the turnpike, the plan suggests that tolls will continue for the foreseeable future.

"I think what this is suggesting is that we better be prepared to collect tolls on the turnpike for a while and to do it in a way that's going to be the most cost effective and the most customer friendly," said Cohen, who becomes chairman of the Turnpike Authority next month, the paper reported.

"Open road tolls" similar to the proposed turnpike plan are gaining popularity across the nation, including roads in Miami, Chicago and New Jersey.

The Miami-Dade Expressway Authority estimates that about 2,200 vehicles an hour can pass through express lanes, assuming an average speed of 55 mph, compared to the estimated 1,200 vehicles that can pass through a single transponder lane and the estimated 400 cars that can pass through a staffed tollbooth every hour, according to the Globe.

Congestion pricing charges motorists more during rush hour to encourage them to use public transit. Tolls on I-15 outside San Diego, for example, can range from 50 cents to $4, depending on the time.

Under the turnpike proposal, some cash tollbooths would still be necessary for visitors and others not signed up for Fast Lane, but fewer toll takers would be needed, according to the paper.

Programs that give some Boston and Charlestown residents toll discounts to make up for the hassles of the Big Dig would continue under the new contract, plus another discount for Chelsea residents on the Tobin Bridge, the paper reported. The new operator would have to continue and perhaps expand Fast Lane services to both the Massachusetts Port Authority, which uses the technology on the Tobin Bridge, and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which uses the system at the Rte. 128 garage in Westwood.

The Turnpike Authority fired Pennsylvania-based TransCore, the company that runs the Fast Lane electronic toll program, effective next April, after it declined to make improvements to the system without being paid more than $1 million, according to the Globe. It has been the sole contractor for Fast Lane since 1998, when the system started on the turnpike.

TransCore will be allowed to rebid on the new contract in August. The company, which runs similar toll-collection systems on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and elsewhere, was to have been paid about $100 million over 10 years, ending in 2015, the paper reported.

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