Mass Pike prepares to phase out toll booths

  • Motorists wait to enter the Massachusetts Turnpike in Chicopee, Thursday. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Carlos Palachio, right, takes a toll from a customer at a Massachusetts Turnpike booth in Springfield, Thursday. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Motorists drive past a toll gantry constructed over the Massachusetts Turnpike in Westfield, Thursday. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Motorists drive past a toll gantry constructed over the Massachusetts Turnpike in Westfield, Thursday. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Motorists pass through the Massachusetts Turnpike toll booth in Springfield, Thursday. JERREY ROBERTS

For the Gazette
Published: 7/1/2016 10:24:04 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A three-year project to replace tollbooths on the Massachusetts Turnpike with an all-electronic toll system is well on its way to completion, and is now beginning its testing phase.

The system will do away with the 25 tollbooths and roughly 400 tollbooth operators that currently stand at every exit and on-ramp along the Interstate 90 highway, replacing them with 16 overhead structures, or gantries, outfitted with electronic receivers for reading EZ Passes and high-speed cameras to capture license plate numbers.

The new system is slated to take effect in mid-October.

The state Department of Transportation has touted the project as a money-saver, to the tune of $50 million a year over the current tollbooth collection system.

At least one resident agrees and is looking forward to the system’s benefits. Keith Hazel, originally from New York, noted that his home state has had electronic tolls for years, something he says “eliminates all that negative human interaction” between traffic-jammed drivers and tollbooth operators.

“It keeps people moving, it’s more efficient,” Hazel said. “I’m all for it.”

Because drivers don’t have to slow down to pass under the gantries, there is also potential to ease traffic congestion and even reduce fuel consumption and carbon emissions from start-stop traffic at the booths, the DOT says.

But how the system will work when it’s operational is still a matter of some confusion. It is unclear what the new fee structure will be; in the past, drivers would take a ticket upon getting on the Pike and paid a toll at a collection booth based on the number of exits they traveled.

Now, however, the DOT is proposing a flat fee structure be used, regardless of the distance traveled. Under the new system, a driver would pass under the gantry and be charged this fee on their EZ Pass, or be billed a higher fee in the mail if they don’t have a pass. In that case, cameras attached to the gantry would snap a photo of the license plate, and then a bill would be sent to that person’s address shortly thereafter. The fees still have not been set, but DOT officials have claimed that driving from one end of the Pike to the other should cost the same.

Despite potential for the gantries’ cameras to be used to track people’s vehicles, those interviewed in Northampton said that the prospect of being photographed doesn’t worry them.

“I don’t care because they’ve been taking our picture for a lot longer than that,” said Austin Hatch Tuesday morning. “We all have a cell phone.”

Meanwhile, the rapidly approaching Oct. 15 switchover has left some veteran toll collectors confused and frustrated.

“They’re not telling us nothing,” said one Springfield DOT shift supervisor who declined to give his name. “We know the date, but what happens after that?”

The DOT has said that for the 200 most senior tollbooth operators, there will be retirement options. The Springfield operator said the package offered seemed fair.

In addition, the DOT said that some 85 positions will be opened in other areas of the department, though the specific jobs and who would be qualified to apply for them were not available. The remaining 115 tollbooth operates will lose their jobs.

“I had the job for X number of years, and I have a lot of questions they’re not answering,” said the operator.

Scott Burcell, 45, of Williamsburg, expressed concern for the toll collectors’ welfare, but also acknowledged, “That’s just the way of the world, technology replaces some jobs.”

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