Saturday, 2:15 PM
After Easter snafus, Pike puts toll taker layoffs on hold
(Evan Richman/Globe Staff/file 2008)
By Noah Bierman, Globe Staff
AUBURN -- The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority will delay a layoff of as many as 50 toll takers that had been scheduled to begin June 15, turnpike executive director Alan LeBovidge said this morning.
The layoffs were part of a plan to eliminate more than 100 toll takers to trim costs at the financially strapped agency. LeBovidge said the authority had already cut 67 toll takers in the last year through attrition.
"We can't have customer service if we get rid of a lot of toll takers," LeBovidge said.
LeBovidge also said the authority was beginning the process of hiring seasonal toll takers, which it had hoped to avoid.
The change in course on toll takers was the result of an Easter Sunday traffic tie-up that left some drivers stranded in backups as long as 7 miles and drew widespread public fury.
To encourage drivers to obtain Fast Lane transponders, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority board today also voted to eliminate a 50-cent monthly fee for transponders that was set to take effect in July. The new fee had also outraged some drivers when it was first announced.
LeBovidge has acknowledged that the Easter backups were a result of his decision to lower staffing levels and reduce overtime expenses.
Governor Deval Patrick and Transportation Secretary James Aloisi over the weekend ordered a change in policy to avoid similar backups in the future, including reexamining the policy to wave motorists through tolls for free when backups become untenable. LeBovidge said he's still working to determine when to wave drivers through, noting that even when fully staffed, there are often backups at turnpike toll plazas.
He said letting cars go through free at the three busiest toll booths on Easter would have cost $90,000 per hour in lost tolls.
The move to make the Fast Lane transponders free will cost the agency $6 milllion a year. But officials said it will reduce congestion at tollbooths by spurring more drivers to acquire transponders.
The authority's commitment to consider customer service as it tries to cut costs comes as it continues to struggle to pay bills. Toll increases have been delayed several times. LeBovidge said today he is worried that the authority's reserves could be completely depleted by the end of the budget year, June 30.
The Turnpike is saddled with more than $2 billion in debt, mostly due to the mammoth Big Dig project, and officials are hoping for an increase in the state tax that will give them $100 million a year more in revenues without having to raise tolls. Otherwise, the authority expects to raise tolls significantly as of July 1.