In advance of the changeover in late October to all-electronic tolling on the Massachusetts Turnpike, officials are distributing free transponders that motorists will need to avoid paying higher rates to travel on the highway.
Lila Johnson said she drives on the turnpike occasionally between her Springfield home and a shopping mall, but nonetheless felt compelled to sign up for an E-ZPass account and get a transponder for her car.
" I guess I do feel like I am being forced ( to get a transponder) based on everything I read, " said Johnson.
Seventy-five people lined up at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the Clodo Concepcion Center in Springfield’s 16 Acres neighborhood at the beginning of a four-hour long transponder give-a-way. Many of the people in line for a transponder were infrequent turnpike travelers like Loring Staples.
" If you don't ( have a transponder), you are going to get all these surcharges, " he said. " So, that is why I got it."
People who now hand cash to a toll-taker have a financial incentive to get an electronic tolling transponder. Starting October 28th, the toll booths will be replaced by a series of overhand gantries straddling the highway that have sensors and cameras to automatically charge tolls as vehicles pass beneath.
For drivers without transponders, the tolls will be billed in the mail. There will be a surcharge plus a 60-cent fee. The cost of driving from the New York border to Logan Airport in Boston will nearly double for drivers without a transponder.
MassDOT says 73 percent of the tolls it collects on the western part of the turnpike are paid through an E-ZPass account. The goal is to increase that to 85 percent when all-electronic tolling begins. State Rep. Jose Tosado of Springfield, who sponsored Wednesday’s transponder event and will do another Sept. 7 in the Hungry Hill neighborhood, believes the goal will be reached.
"We are going to be able to increase the usage in western Massachusetts. I think it is a good thing all the way around," said Tosado.
State transportation department officials said the change to all-electronic tolling is revenue neutral, meaning tolls are not increasing. But the rates announced earlier this month have raised some questions. Under the proposal, about half the trips by motorists with an E-ZPass account will cost more under the new system, 5 percent will stay the same, and the rest will cost less.
A group of state legislators have written a letter to MassDOT seeking an explanation.
" The intent was for this not to be a revenue-generating activity, but one of convenience and cost containment," said Tosado.
Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the toll pricing structure had to be changed because 16 gantries will replace 26 toll plazas.
" It is a complicated process. We think we put out a fair set of ( regulations). We definitely want to hear what people have to say. And we definitely want people who don't already have a transponder to get ready for all-electronic tolling to go live on Oct. 28 by getting themselves a transponder," said Pollack.
A series of public hearings on the proposed rates will be held before a formal vote on the proposed charges on Oct. 6. A public hearing is scheduled in Springfield on Sept. 14.
Because this is an open road tolling system, it will end the need for drivers to stop or even slow down to pay the toll. State officials say this will result in less congestion and fewer accidents. Commuting times should be reduced.
Plans call for toll plazas to be razed by the end of 2017.