Get Mass. transponder or face higher Turnpike charges

Electronic tolling scheduled to start Oct. 28

This story was updated at 5:30 p.m. At 3 p.m., because of incorrect information supplied by state officials, it was corrected to say that drivers without transponders will be charged $11.70 for driving from Stockbridge to Boston.

AS THE MASSACHUSETTS TURNPIKE shifts to electronic tolling, state officials are urging drivers to pick up and start using free Bay State transponders or face higher charges.

The Turnpike’s new electronic tolling system is expected to start at 10 p.m. on Oct. 28. The 26 toll plazas will start coming down on that date and drivers will be charged electronically as they go under 16 gantries spread across the roadway between Boston and the New York border. The transition to electronic tolling is expected to be completed by the end of next year.

Drivers with Massachusetts transponders will pay one rate, while drivers with transponders from other states and drivers with no transponder will pay higher rates. Drivers with no transponders will have their license plates photographed and bills mailed to them; the charge will be 30 cents more at each gantry plus a 60-cent billing fee. For drivers with out-of-state transponders, the premium will be 5 or 10 cents depending on the gantry.

State officials said electronic tolling is designed to enhance public safety, reduce congestion, and improve air quality. Overall, state officials said, the introduction of electronic tolling will be revenue neutral, but individual drivers may see their toll costs rise or fall depending on where they drive on the Turnpike. For example, the cost of driving from Newton Corner to downtown Boston on the Turnpike will go from $1 to $1.50, while the cost of driving from Allston/Brighton to downtown will fall from $1 to 50 cents. Officials said tolls on nearly 47 percent of all trips on the Turnpike will go down.

“This is not a toll increase,” said state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack.

Under the toll proposal, the cost to drive the length of the Turnpike from Boston to Southbridge is currently $6.60 and would drop 60 cents to $6 starting Oct. 28 for those with Massachusetts transponders. For those with transponders issued by another state the cost would rise from $7.10 to $7.80 and for those without any transponder at all the cost would rise from $7.10 to $11.70, plus the 60-cent billing fee. Resident discounts will continue for those who live in Charlestown and East Boston.

The toll proposal will be reviewed at a series of public meetings before a vote in October by the board overseeing the Transportation Department.

Braintree Mayor Joseph Sullivan, a member of the state transportation board, pushed for a transition period after the Oct. 28 start date during which people without transponders would not be charged a premium. But Pollack and other state officials pushed back against that notion, saying an amnesty period would mean the state would have to eat the costs of reaching out by mail to drivers without transponders. “Frankly, we think this is the transition period,” Pollack said, referring to the period leading up to Oct. 28.

Drivers can obtain Massachusetts transponders at no cost at ezpassma.com, at 19 of the 29 Registry of Motor Vehicles locations, or at offices of the American Automobile Association. Pollack said transponders, which cost about $9 apiece, will be made available at no charge to out-of-state residents because to charge residents of other states more would be a violation of interstate commerce laws.

Pollack said 81 percent of the drivers who currently use the Boston tolls already have transponders. She said 73 percent of drivers use transponders on the section of the Turnpike west of Weston and 74 percent use them in the tunnels. She noted the rate of transponder usage on the Tobin Bridge when it shifted to electronic tolling in 2014 went from 65 percent to 85 percent.

The big concern is what transportation officials are calling leakage, meaning the amount of money that goes uncollected from drivers without transponders. Thomas Tinlin, the state’s highway administrator, said 21 percent of the money sought from drivers who use the Tobin Bridge without a transponder goes uncollected. He said the percentage of leakage on the Turnpike is expected to be about 35 percent because more out-of-state residents use that roadway. Even at 35 percent leakage, however, the loss would be just 5 percent of total Turnpike revenue.

Leakage occurs for a variety of reasons. The most common cause is that a driver without a transponder simply refuses to the pay the bill he receives in the mail. Toll fees also go uncollected because the driver has a license plate that doesn’t yield an accurate photograph because it’s covered by snow or its bent or damaged in some fashion.

Drivers without transponders who don’t pay their toll fees receive four bills before the matter is referred to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, which won’t issue a license or registration to the driver until the uncollected charges, plus late penalties, are paid. To collect from out-of-state drivers, Massachusetts has reciprocity agreements with New Hampshire and Maine that require those states to take similar action against drivers in their states. Massachusetts is seeking similar agreements with Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York.

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Bruce Mohl

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About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Pollack said the state doesn’t plan to use the data gathered by the gantries to catch speeders; one of her aides said state law doesn’t allow ticketing by machine. She also said the system will not be used to search for individual drivers, except in circumstances where a request is made by the executive office of public safety. She said an amber alert, where police are searching for someone who has abducted a child, could be an instance where the state would use the system to help track down an individual driver.

Pollack said any private data of drivers gathered via electronic tolling will be protected. “We will keep it secure and we will keep it confidential,” Pollack said.