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Editorial: Modernize Mass Pike payments

The plan announced Monday by Gov. Deval Patrick would bring the Massachusetts Turnpike toll collection system into the 21st century. The all-electronic system would remove toll booths and end time-consuming, gas-wasting traffic backups. It sounds promising, but the devil is, as always, in the details.

The state would scrap most or all booths on the Pike by 2015 and use an automated system to charge drivers for use of the road as they exit it or pass through major interchanges. According to state administrators, savings would pay the system’s $100 million cost in two to three years and eliminate the expense of renovating and updating the booths. No contract has been awarded.

Turnpike users can now pay cash at toll plazas or join the E-ZPass system, which electronically collects their tolls through a transponder in their vehicles. E-ZPass drivers avoid the lines of cash-only lanes, but must still slow to 15 mph or so when they go through plazas.

While the new system has benefits — it’s cheaper to run, lowers gas consumption and pollution and cuts down on travel time — there are downsides. Almost all of the 410 full- and part-time toll collectors would lose their jobs. The state is now in the midst of negotiating what will probably be the final contract with the collectors, some of whom earn $30 an hour. According to the plan sketched out by Patrick, the state will seek to minimize the impact on collectors by trimming most of the jobs through retirements or buyouts. The remaining workers would be trained for other government jobs.

Although an automated system should streamline the state’s heaviest travel corridors, both in terms of toll collection and traffic flow, it can bring its own set of problems.

Thought must be given to developing the system for charging drivers, in particular those without onboard transponders. States that already have the electronic tolls use cameras to capture images of license plates so they can send monthly bills to vehicle owners. This payment procedure seems cumbersome and potentially costly. In a digital age, there must be a better way.

In addition, as anyone who uses computers knows, electronic systems come with kinks. For example, a car followed too closely by another vehicle through an automated toll plaza can end up getting charged for both tolls. Such malfunctions need to be addressed so people are not charged inaccurately.

The Big Dig confirmed that close oversight is needed of the people and institutions in charge of the highway system’s operation and finances. Once in digital format, the system might be easier to mismanage.

Still, for commuters who take to toll roads every weekday, the system could save hours now spent stuck behind the wheel, and reduce gas consumption, as well as reduce carbon releases. For that and other reasons, this is a plan worth pursuing.

WOW, Some toll collectors make $30.00 an hour plus state benefits?

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