State officials will soon unveil plans for a $250-million project to, by 2017, replace all toll booths along the Massachusetts Turnpike with electronic toll collection systems, which will allow drivers to travel at normal highway speeds as they pay.
Devices hung over the main part of the interstate will collect tolls either by reading an E-ZPass transponder or scanning a license plate and billing the vehicle owner by mail, transportation department officials said.
Cash and ticket transactions will be eliminated from Interstate 90 in Massachusetts, following several months of testing of the electronic-only system.
Toll plazas at the interchanges will eventually be torn down, most of the state’s 400 toll collectors will lose their jobs and the state will save an estimated $50 million in annual operating costs once the project is done, said transportation department spokeswoman Cyndi Roy.
Funding for the project, which will come from the state transportation department, has been lined up already, she said. Work is scheduled to start in June of 2014.
However, uncertainty hangs over a large chunk of the project.
The state expects that on Jan. 1, 2017, it will pay off the debt legally-tied to the stretch of turnpike west of Route 128, which would allow the state to stop charging drivers tolls along that part of the Pike, according to Roy.
But, unless a decision is made otherwise, the state transportation department will continue to move forward designing, building and installing new all-electronic toll gantries along the entire Pike, despite the potential that half of them may no longer be needed a just few months before they are scheduled to go into operation, Roy said.
"We wanted more certainty, but we don’t have it right now,” she said by phone Wednesday afternoon. “We’re going to move forward until and if a decision is made otherwise.”
The state legislature last month went against Governor Deval Patrick’s wishes, overriding his veto to pass a transportation finance bill without addressing more clearly whether toll collection west of Rte. 128 should be kept or eliminated after the debt is paid.
If the status quo holds, the decision over the future of those tolls would be left up to whoever holds the position of Secretary of Transportation at the time the debt is settled, Roy said.
The secretary could decide that part of the Pike is not in a “state of good repair” and opt to keep toll collection in place in order to generate revenue to improve and maintain road conditions, she said; or they could decide it is in a good enough state to stop charging tolls.
The department spokeswoman said officials expect it will take until 2039 to pay off debt tied to the portion of the Pike east of Route 128, meaning toll collection will continue there until at least then.
The transportation finance bill approved last month included a measure allowing the transportation department to collect tolls at the Pike’s six westernmost interchanges for the first time since they were eliminated in 1996. The department announced its decision this week to resume collecting those tolls starting in mid-October.
The upcoming project to switch to all-electronic, open-road toll collection will reduce traffic congestion and increase safety in addition to reducing long- and short-term operation costs, according to planning documents.
Currently, toll plazas include barriers and require drivers to slow down to travel through E-ZPass lanes or to come to a stop to travel through cash and ticket lanes.
The new system would feature “toll zones,” which would each consist of laser scanners, cameras and other electronic equipment affixed above the roadway to a steel pole-shaped gantry.
Cars and trucks passing underneath would either pay via the E-ZPass program or by a new program, called Pay-By-Plate, which would photograph a vehicle’s license plate and mail a monthly bill of all that vehicle’s tolls to its owner.
Bills through the Pay-By-Plate program will include an additional charge, likely $1 to $2 more, in order to cover the cost to process and mail the invoices, said Roy.
State officials said that currently about 70 percent of tolls on the Pike west of Rte. 128 are paid for by E-ZPass. East of Rte. 128, about 80 percent of tolls are paid using E-ZPass.
There are 24 toll plazas at Pike interchanges and tunnels.
The new system would require fewer gantries – just 17 – to do the same job, according to planning documents.
One other gantry will be installed to replace toll booths on the Tobin Bridge.
The new technology there is scheduled to be up and running by early 2014 and will serve as a pilot for the all-electronic system that will eventually be installed on the Pike, Roy said.
Before cash and ticket systems are shutdown on the turnpike, the state will spend several months testing the new technology, according to planning documents.
Once the testing is done, the manual toll-collection boots will be closed and demolished.
State officials said that without the project, the existing plazas would require more than $65 million in basic repairs and rehabilitation over the next 20 years.
The project also calls for building two new customer service locations – one in Saugus and one in a to-be-determined location in the western part of the state, Roy said.
The quarter-billion dollar price-tag for the project includes all costs to plan, design, build, install and to operate the new system for the first several years.
Most of the estimated $50 million in annual savings the project will bring will come from eliminating toll collector positions and reducing other administrative and personnel costs, she said.
Some toll collectors will be reassigned to other positions within the transportation department, including about 25 who currently work at the Tobin Bridge plaza, Roy said.
But, most will lose their jobs. The department plans to offer job training and assistance to those workers, she said.
Meanwhile, as the department plans the massive undertaking, it is “looking at the entire toll fare structure,” including the possibility of someday raising toll prices on the Pike, Roy said.
That process also involves the department exploring the possibility of adding tolls elsewhere in the state, perhaps along major roadways that cross the Massachusetts border or by charging drivers to use a certain lane or lanes on a highway, she said.
State officials announced they will present for the Pike toll plaza replacement project at a public meeting from 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 15, in the conference room on the second floor of the State Transportation Building at 10 Park Plaza in Boston.
The state has also scheduled two other meetings to discuss the project – one from 6 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 20, at Worcester City Hall and the other from 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 22 in room 220 of Springfield City Hall.
The meetings will include presentations from state transportation and environmental staff, followed by an opportunity for discussion and questions.