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, the Authority said yesterday.
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 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 preceding 30 days will get credit for the full price.
The new fee, which would affect both current and new transponder users and raise several millions of dollars a year for the authority, will go into effect in June.
Officials said the money lost by giving away the transponders would essentially be made up by the new fee.
"We're not doing this to make money," said Mac Daniel, a spokesman for the Turnpike Authority. "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 join, he said, it would help the Turnpike Authority 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 A. 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 tollbooth."
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 tollbooths.
The plan applies to all vehicles, including taxis, which are required to use Fast Lane passes, and commercial vehicles.
The Turnpike Authority has been grappling both with mammoth debt, mostly from the Big Dig project, and a decline in the number of drivers 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 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 Authority is proposing toll increases to cover its growing debt and maintenance costs. The 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 authority was expected to vote today on finalizing the toll increase, but the issue was listed as "discussion only" Tuesday. Some lawmakers saw the listing as evidence that the toll increases would be delayed.