All-electronic tolling has removed toll booths and the traffic bottlenecks they created on the Mass Pike, but lawmakers also realize the modern gantries open up a new way to expand tolling and generate the revenue we need to fix MA roads and bridges.

Credit: Elise Amendola/AP

The Future Of Tolling

March 26, 2018

Massachusetts residents overwhelmingly say improving transportation is among their top priorities. They want legislators to do more to fix crumbling roads and bridges and to reduce congestion on the highways. 

That may mean more tolls, on more roads. And because Massachusetts has moved from toll booths to electronic tolling, charging drivers on their routes may be easier now than ever before.

The only road currently tolled in Massachusetts is the Mass Pike. That's because it was funded with bonds that were to be paid for with tolls. The other major highways in the state were paid for with mostly federal tax dollars, as part of the national Interstate Highway System.

But the way we are paying tolls these days is different — there are no more tollbooths. Instead, drivers have transponders, which allow overhead gantries to charge a toll each time they pass underneath. And, if you don't have an EZ Pass transponder, cameras on the gantry take a picture of your license plate and you're billed later.

All-electronic tolling was meant to eliminate toll booths and the traffic bottlenecks that come with them. And not only that; because this tolling method only requires gantries, and not toll booths, it is relatively easy to expand tolling to other roads. 

"All-electronic tolling gives states another tool in their tool box to rebuild their crumbling interstate highways," says Patrick Jones, director of the International Tunnel and Turnpike Association.

State Senator Joseph Boncore of Lynn, chairman of the senate transportation committee, says expanded tolling could be used to make funding transportation infrastructure more fair.
 
A recent poll found motorists evenly split on the issue of expanding electronic tolling to other roads. When respondents were asked if they’d approve of more tolls if the additional revenue went directly towards relieving highway congestion, a majority said yes.

Then there are commuters who remember the Big Dig and are skeptical of any new money devoted to transportation needs. That's the big challenge for political leaders on Beacon Hill, but Boncore says he thinks people realize that someone has to pay for infrastructure.

"They're open to paying for it if they're assured and it's a transparent process, to know that that money is going back into the highway that they're using," he says.
 
But Boncore doesn't see the senate passing a bill this session to expand tolling.

And there’s another problem — states are not allowed to toll roads that receive federal funding. Like President Obama before him, President Trump is proposing to change that, but the ban has not yet been lifted.  

So what action could we see? We could see a bill that would require Massachusetts Department of Transportation to commission a broad study regarding toll equity.  Although all-electronic tolling promises a relatively easy way to raise more revenue, officials say there will be a study first, before more of those gantries are erected.


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