Think of it as the prepaid cellphone of the tolling world. Shortly before Labor Day, the Department of Transportation introduced E-ZPass On The Go, slipping hundreds onto convenience-store racks at Massachusetts Turnpike rest stops.
Inside the clear packaging, consumers find the same transponders previously available only by mailing, faxing, or submitting an online application to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, or by enrolling in person at a Registry of Motor Vehicles branch or one of three dedicated E-ZPass customer service centers.
And until now, that has meant in most cases having to surrender a checking account number or data associated with a credit or debit card so that the device could be automatically replenished. (Drivers who lacked cards or checking accounts, or who wanted to keep that information from the government, could go to the trouble of mailing or delivering cash or checks — and inviting the risk of driving through a toll plaza with insufficient credit, triggering a $50 fine.)
E-ZPass On The Go lets consumers shell out $20 and walk away with a transponder loaded with $20 in credit for immediate use at tolls, without needing to provide identifying details to the government or register the device for a specific vehicle. That also means these transponders can be easily moved between vehicles or shared among drivers, unlike conventional E-ZPass.
In the first two weeks, the state made E-ZPass On The Go available at five of 11 Mass. Pike service plazas and sold about 500, advertising them only through “Got Tolls?” signs at the gas pumps. Last Thursday, the devices reached all 11 plazas, through a partnership with Gulf Oil, which holds the turnpike’s gas and convenience contract.
For now at least, MassDOT is eating the cost of the $12 transponders obtained from manufacturer Kapsch — a $120,000 outlay to set aside 10,000 specially packaged units — as an investment in discouraging cash at toll plazas. (Motorists who get the traditional E-ZPass also are not charged for obtaining a transponder.)
State transportation officials said they hope customers will like E-ZPass On The Go so much that they go online and register the prepaid transponders, converting them in the process to conventional, reloadable E-ZPass units.
“We’re trying to eliminate cash from the system as much as possible,” said Frank DePaola, MassDOT’s highway administrator. “Handling of cash is never good,” he said, and eliminating toll plaza stops helps relieve congestion.
Reducing cash transactions also reduces the amount of tollbooth labor needed, though Frank demurred on that point, sort of. “Probably something I don’t want to talk about,” DePaola said. “I like my tires not being flattened too much.”
Massachusetts is no pioneer in prepaid transponders. Some veteran E-ZPass On The Go states charge a deposit ($10 in New York and New Jersey, $9 in Maryland) atop the prepaid toll dollars, applying that sum to a customer’s toll credit if the transponder gets registered but keeping it if it does not.
This is the latest incentive to use transponders. At peak commuting hours on weekdays, nearly 90 percent of vehicles pay their tolls electronically, but the percentage dips below 60 on many weekends, DePaola said. The needle has moved only slightly in recent years.