Mass. transportation secretary: People are going to need to pick up E-ZPasses

Cash will not be accepted at Tobin Bridge tolls beginning early next year, and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation is hoping to transition several other major thoroughfares to electronic-only payment systems within several years, the state transportation secretary said today.

Richard A. Davey said the changes will reduce congestion and operating costs at the tolls, and the department plans to do the same on the Massachusetts Turnpike and the Logan International Airport tunnels in coming years. The new system will remove toll booths in favor of overhead sensors, allowing drivers to travel at normal highway speeds while paying tolls electronically with E-ZPasses.

“Electronic tolling will help for several reasons,” Davey said in a phone interview. “Today, in our ‘fast lane’ you have to drive at 15 miles per hour to pay, and 15 miles per hour is not fast ... and two, it will drive down our cost to collect a toll.”

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Davey said the changes would necessitate a widespread shift to E-ZPasses. He announced that the passes will now be provided to AAA members for free at 17 AAA offices across the state.

The E-ZPass system, currently in 15 states, allows commuters to pass through toll booths without stopping. An electronic scanner identifies an E-ZPass transponder and charges the driver’s account, which is linked to a debit or credit card.

Currently, in Massachusetts, some drivers can pay cash, and E-ZPass users are asked to slow down as they pass through toll booths so cash-paying drivers can merge safely with them once they get out of the toll booth. Officials want to adopt open-road E-ZPass tolling, which will allow everyone to zoom at highway speeds.

Cameras will capture the license plates of drivers who don’t have passes, and they will receive a bill for the toll in the mail.

“This is electronic, open-road, there’s no barrier at all,” DOT spokeswoman Sara Lavoie said. “You can go the speed of the highway, you don’t have to slow down or stop at all.”

It will cost the state $1.7 million to transition the Tobin Bridge to all-electronic, open-road tolling, and around $120 million for the Turnpike and airport tunnels, Lavoie said.

Davey said many of the state’s manual toll booths are decades old and due for repairs which would be costly for the state anyway, and he expects reduced operating costs from the new system to pay for the cost of construction.

“We expect that once electronic tolling is rolled out across the state, we will save $50 million a year in operating costs,” he said.

Those savings will come primarily from cutting around three-quarters of the state’s tollbooth monitoring jobs — between 300 to 350, Davey said.

The DOT will retain around 100 toll employees to send bills to those whose cars passed through the toll plaza without paying, he said. Job training and other transitional programs will be made available, he said.

“Obviously, we don’t want to displace employees. They’ve done nothing wrong. Technology has just caught up to them,” Davey said.

AAA is providing the E-ZPass sensors to their members at branches in Auburn, Boston, Burlington, Framingham, Haverhill, Lawrence, Leominster, Lowell, Newburyport, Newton, North Andover, Peabody, Plymouth, Rockland, Saugus, Waltham and Westwood.

The transponders are available to other drivers for free at 20 Registry of Motor Vehicle branches, and the DOT is planning to field at least one E-ZPass mobile registration vehicle.

The transponders are free, but drivers must register a debit or credit card to their accounts, which will be charged when their car passes through a toll, AAA spokeswoman Mary Maguire said. An initial deposit of $20 to a new E-ZPass account is required at AAA offices. No deposit is required at the RMV offices.