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The proposed expansion of express lanes on the turnpike would allow vehicles with special transponders to go through tollbooths without slowing down.
The proposed expansion of express lanes on the turnpike would allow vehicles with special transponders to go through tollbooths without slowing down. (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff/ File)

Higher tolls, faster trips eyed for Pike

Cost would rise at rush hour under proposal

Fast Lane users on the Massachusetts Turnpike would get a quicker trip, but all commuters would pay a premium to drive the highway at rush hour under a proposal the Turnpike Authority is considering.

Expanded express lanes with state-of-the-art sensors would allow vehicles with special transponders to cruise through tollbooths at highway speeds, compared with the current limit of 10 to 15 miles per hour .

The Turnpike Authority is also considering whether to institute "congestion pricing," under which drivers would be charged more during peak travel times. And it is eyeing a video camera system that could record license plate numbers and send out bills automatically to motorists without transponders on their cars.

The proposals, reviewed yesterday by the turnpike board, are part of an effort to upgrade technology on the Pike for the first time in a decade -- and potentially bring in more toll revenue for the cash-poor agency.

Nearly 60 percent of Pike motorists use Fast Lane. About 120,000 vehicles use the highway between downtown and the Allston-Brighton tolls on an average workday.

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

But some commuters object to the higher tolls during rush hour. Susan Hughes , 43, who commutes 45 minutes from her Webster home to her Framingham job at a medical information company, said charging more to use the turnpike during peak hours would burden either her or her employer.

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

In August, the turnpike board plans to send potential bidders the details of the changes it wants in toll collection. 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 this summer to issue its recommendations, which could include higher tolls, the privatization of state transportation, or increasing the gas tax.

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

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

While some details have yet to be worked out, the plan suggests that tolls will continue for the foreseeable future despite the aggressive push of legislators representing western suburbs to have tolls lifted or lowered on the turnpike.

Lawmakers have filed several bills proposing to end tolls or to give discounts to commuters from the western suburbs, who have long contended they are paying an unfair share for the $14.7 billion Big Dig, which they rarely use.

"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.

Some transportation engineers, who declined to be named because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly, questioned whether the turnpike has the room for the express lanes, which require a wide right of way and long sight lines.

It's unclear whether existing Fast Lane tollbooths would be kept at some onramps and offramps.

Similar "open road tolls" are gaining popularity across the nation, including the New Jersey Turnpike and roads in Miami and Chicago.

The Miami-Dade Expressway Authority estimates that while 400 cars can pass through a staffed tollbooth every hour, and 1,200 through a single transponder lane, about 2,200 vehicles an hour can pass through express lanes, assuming an average speed of 55 miles per hour.

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

Some cash tollbooths would still be necessary under the turnpike proposal, for visitors and others not signed up for Fast Lane. But fewer toll takers would be necessary.

Union officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.

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

In April, the Turnpike Authority fired TransCore, the company that runs the Fast Lane electronic toll program, effective next April, after it declined to make administrative improvements to the system without being paid more than $1 million.

The Pennsylvania-based company will be allowed to rebid on the new contract in August. It has been the sole contractor for Fast Lane since the system started on the turnpike in 1998.

TransCore, 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.

Mac Daniel can be reached at mdaniel@globe.com.

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