THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Brian McGrory

Pay N.H. your toll, respects

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / June 11, 2010

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I’m sorry, New Hampshire.

I’m sorry that anyone from my paper, my city, my entire state has ever uttered a negative word about your wise and noble people. I’m sorry that we criticize the nice campers that populate your front yards, the friendly nightcrawler salesmen who sit on the sides of your roads, the cheerful fireworks stores that greet visitors on your borders.

I feel this wave of contrition after having soared through the Hampton toll plaza on Interstate 95 over Memorial Day weekend without so much as touching my brakes.

You read that right. No miles of stop-and-go traffic on a Saturday morning. No sense of dread when it was time to drive home. No wasted gas, shortened tempers, or increased air pollution.

All because of three little words that describe one extraordinary human accomplishment: Open-road tolling.

When nobody was looking, New Hampshire reconfigured its Hampton toll plaza to become the first state in New England to implement this miracle of modern technology. Explaining open-road tolling is kind of like trying to comprehend the early iPod — So the mini cassette goes where?

With open-road tolling, there are no booths. There is no reason to stop. In fact, as you glide through the plaza, the sign above says 65 miles per hour.

How do they do it? Don’t know. I was driving too fast to see. I was told later that some piece of wizardry pings your E-ZPass transponder as you fly through two wide-open lanes at highway speed. If you don’t have a transponder, there are still six lanes with tollbooths nearby.

George Campbell is the transportation commissioner in New Hampshire, the former mayor of Portland, Maine, and my choice for New Englander of the decade.

“We are very cognizant of services to our traveling public,’’ Campbell said on the phone. “We were very concerned about these legendary backups.’’

Now comes the real point. Why is the most technologically sophisticated state in the nation, meaning us, still bumbling along with daily traffic jams — worsened by a 1980s toll-collecting psyche — while our hillbilly neighbors have gone completely state-of-the-art?

“Fair question,’’ said Jeffrey Mullan, the secretary of transportation in Massachusetts. Mullan, by the way, is exactly the kind of official you want in state government. It took Deval Patrick three tries to find a good transportation chief, but when he did, he hit it big.

Mullan offered me a very detailed account of the hopes that Massachusetts has for open-road tolling and the obstacles that it faces, all of which undoubtedly made sense, none of which indicated we would have it anytime soon.

Those obstacles include a lack of space around some prime plazas, such as the Massachusetts Turnpike at the Route 128 exchange, and a reticence toward the kind of toll increase that would be required. Some officials have said it would cost more than $100 million.

“It’s not lack of effort on our part or lack of desire,’’ Mullan said. “But we have limitations that are built in.’’

Limitations. That should be our official state word. It should be sewn into our state flag, become our state emblem. Everywhere Massachusetts turns, there are limitations.

New Hampshire didn’t even have E-ZPass five years ago. The open-road tolling was built in less than 10 months. It came in within its $18 million budget. And while it required a toll increase from $1.50 to $2, the convenience is priceless.

Meantime, we live in a state rich with elite universities and creative technology companies, yet we’re confounded.

It’s not the governor’s fault. It’s not Mullan’s fault. It’s not even our ham-handed Legislature’s fault. Rather, it’s a collective psyche that accepts obstacles as the norm and change as something that happens somewhere else.

You want to see progress, take a very pleasant drive through New Hampshire. Just avoid our toll plazas on the ride up.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.

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