By Martin Finucane, Globe Staff
The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority will provide electronic toll transponders free to motorists who want to glide through toll plazas without dealing with a toll taker. But it will also institute a new service fee of 50 cents per month for all those who use the devices, authority officials said today.
The authority has been charging $25.95 for the transponders, which automatically pay a toll when a car passes through a booth. Under the new policy, replacement transponders for the approximately 720,000 people who already have Fast Lane accounts will also be free. The free transponders will be available Feb. 15 and those who bought a transponder in the 30 days before that will get a credit for that amount.
The new fees, which would raise several millions of dollars a year for the authority, go into effect in June.
Officials said the money lost by giving away the transponders would essentially be made up by the new fees.
“We're not doing this to make money," said authority spokesman Mac Daniel. "We’re just hoping to simply break even."
Daniel said the idea was to encourage people to join the Fast Lane program. If more people do join, he said, it would help the Turnpike move toward its goal of reducing the number of toll takers.
"We are taking reform and customer service for Turnpike users to a new level," Transportation Secretary James Aloisi Jr. said in a statement. "This move sends a clear message that the Patrick Administration is serious about efficiency in delivering transportation services and in this case serious about moving away from the days of the manned toll booth."
State officials also said the Fast Lane program is good for the environment because it reduces the number of car engines idling in long lines at toll booths.
The plan applies to all vehicles, including taxis, which are required to use Fast Lane passes, and commercial vehicles.
The Turnpike has been grappling both with mammoth debt, mostly from the Big Dig project, and a decline in the number of people using the road.
The authority earlier this month reported 190.9 million toll transactions in 2008, compared with 197.6 million in 2007, a decline of about 6.7 million, or 3.4 percent. The toll road saw transaction declines in 11 out of the 12 months of the year. The largest drop, 7.5 percent, occurred in November. December's decline was 2.5 percent.
The turnpike is proposing toll increases to cover its growing debt and maintenance costs. The financial problems have spurred Governor Deval Patrick and lawmakers to propose reorganizing the transportation system -- and inspired some to suggest an increase in the gasoline tax.
The turnpike board was expected to take a vote Thursday finalizing the toll increase, but the issue was listed as "discussion only" on a meeting agenda released Tuesday. Some lawmakers saw the listing as evidence that the toll hikes would be delayed, while work continues on a broader plan that could reduce or eliminate the need for the increases.