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Mass. will eliminate toll plazas, collectors

The state plans to eliminate highway toll collectors within three years, switching to an all-electronic system that would remove toll plazas — and with them cash, human interaction, and time-consuming bottlenecks — from the Massachusetts Turnpike and other roads, Governor Deval Patrick said Monday.

Replacing all plazas with sensors and cameras to keep traffic moving at highway speed could cost about $100 million, an expense the administration said would pay for itself in two to three years. It would also eliminate the need for expensive renovations to aging toll plazas.

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The details of the system remain to be worked out, but plazas and gates would be no more. Drivers with E-ZPass transponders would be billed as they are now, but would no longer need to slow down. Everyone else would probably receive bills by mail.

The administration plans to seek bids to construct the system once it finishes negotiating what will probably be the last contract for the state’s 410 full- and part-time toll collectors, some of whom make $30 an hour. Their most recent contract expired in June; the new one, officials said, will expire in mid-2015 regardless of when a deal is reached.

“This isn’t about the toll takers. It’s about having as modern and efficient a transportation system as possible, and we will make as dignified and soft a landing for those people as possible,” Patrick told reporters.

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About 80 to 90 percent of toll collection jobs would be eliminated through retirements and buyouts, while the remaining workers would be trained for other jobs, Secretary of Transportation Richard A. Davey said.

Representatives for toll collectors from Teamsters Local 127 did not respond to requests for comment.

The Massachusetts proposal, first reported Monday by the Boston Herald, follows the lead of other regions and would revolutionize toll collection in a state where little has changed since the late-1990s introduction of FastLane, now branded E-ZPass. Drivers with electronic transponders here must still slow down and queue to use automated lanes at toll plazas.

For several years, Massachusetts officials have explored a system akin to what New Hampshire has on Interstate 95 — full-speed lanes for E-ZPass users separated from traditional, gated lanes for cash payers. But the plan in Massachusetts would be fully electronic.

“The bottom line is, technology has overtaken where we are today in our toll collection,” Davey said, alluding to holiday backups on the Pike that last hours and extend for miles. “We’ve heard that from our customers, and we need to respond to that.”

Some regions, such as Dallas, have already eliminated cash from tollways, while other states and toll authorities are testing it in select locations.

New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority last month eliminated cash from the Henry Hudson Bridge connecting Manhattan and the Bronx, instead mailing bills to those lacking E-ZPass transponders — by photographing license plates — and encouraging transponder use by discounting tolls from $4 to $2.20 for ­E-ZPass drivers.

Thirty-five states have toll roads, and E-ZPass-style electronic collection has spread to almost all of them since its Texas debut in 1989, said Neil Gray, director of government affairs for the International Bridge, Tunnel, and Turnpike Association.

High-speed electronic toll collection followed a couple of years later in Oklahoma, while the first cashless system — relying solely on transponders and plate recognition — debuted in the late 1990s with the construction of Toronto’s Highway 407. Retrofitting existing highways is a more recent phenomenon, Gray said.

Florida spent $58 million to convert 47 miles of the north-south highway known as Florida’s Turnpike about two years ago, spokeswoman Sonyha Rodriguez-Miller said. For drivers, the change took effect over a single weekend in February 2011, though removal of all toll booths — from four highway-spanning plazas and 33 ramps — took several months.

Florida’s Turnpike sends monthly bills to drivers lacking SunPass transponders, rather than mailing a bill every time their plate is identified. In less than two years, transponder use has grown from about 80 percent to nearly 90 percent of drivers, while most receiving mailed bills pay promptly to avoid civil penalties, Rodriguez-Miller said.

Nationally, the systems in place for identifying vehicles — cameras and character-recognition software, supplemented by people — recognize about 90 to 97 percent of the drivers without transponders, missing only faded or dingy plates and obscure tags from distant states, said Peter Samuel, editor of the industry publication TOLLROADSnews .

Toll authorities have spent two decades refining issues such as billing rental car drivers and collecting from people who ignore bills, especially across state lines, with mixed success, Samuel said, but the benefits far outweigh complications.

“It’s pretty clear that it is a more economical way of collecting tolls . . . than paying people to sit in a tollbooth,” said Samuel, likening toll collectors to elevator operators. “It’s just one of those jobs that’s not really needed anymore.”

Massachusetts once had more than 500 collectors employed by three agencies. With the 2009 merger that created the state Department of Transportation, existing employees kept their hourly rates but new hires started at $15.55 an hour, said spokeswoman Cyndi Roy.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.
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