MIAMI — It’s one of the first things you see upon entering Publix Supermarket: Just past the pecan pies and right next to the Marlboros, a display of dozens of SunPass toll transponders greets incoming shoppers.
The grocery just off Florida’s Turnpike is one of almost 5,000 places in the state of Florida where motorists can buy or recharge a transponder, part of the reason why Florida has had a successful start to the transition to all-electronic, cash-free tolling — a switch that Massachusetts officials intend to make on the Tobin Bridge within the next two months, and on the Turnpike in 2017.
In Florida, aggressive selling of SunPasses has allowed the state to enjoy one of the highest electronic tolling rates in the country: 91 percent of vehicles on the turnpike roads in the southernmost part of the state have SunPass transponders.
In Massachusetts, by contrast, only 67 percent of drivers who cross the Tobin Bridge use E-ZPasses, which are only available at a comparative handful of locations in the state. And as Massachusetts readies for the switch to cash-free toll plazas statewide, there remains a long way to go to prepare for the logistical challenges of the new system.
The biggest issue is accurately identifying and billing those without transponders, and the key there is minimizing the ranks of these outliers.
“It’s a very small percentage of our overall traffic that’s using the billing piece,” said Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, executive director and chief executive officer of Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise, the organization that manages toll roads in Florida. “That’s a very important factor.”
Neil Gray, director of government affairs at the International Bridge, Tunnel, and Turnpike Association, said that states often find it important to hold down the number of people who are billed based on their license plate.
“There’s no doubt about it,” Gray said, “pay-by-plate is more costly and more complicated.”
Florida is one of the earliest adopters of so-called open-road tolling in America: In 2010, the state instituted an experiment with cash-free tolling on the southernmost 47 miles of the turnpike.
Instead of toll booths, cars whiz underneath a large archway, called a gantry, at highway speed. “DO NOT SLOW,” warn signs as cars approach the archways. “WE WILL BILL YOU WITH TOLL-BY-PLATE.”
The system, much like one in use in some lanes at the toll plaza in Hampton, N.H., reduced congestion, and eliminated the need for hundreds of toll collectors throughout the system, which will lead to millions of dollars in cost savings in coming years.
Most important, it’s safer: Within three months of eliminating toll booths on the Homestead Extension, car accidents within 1 mile of each toll plaza dropped by an average of 76 percent.
“It created a much safer environment,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said.
But the success of the system depends on limiting the number of people who choose to take advantage of the toll-by-plate option, which is costly and time-intensive for staff.
‘There should be a very strong push to get most every vehicle in Massachusetts equipped with transponders.’
High-speed cameras affixed to toll gantries take photos of each car, sending them for identification if the car is not matched by a SunPass transponder. But problems can arise.
Sometimes, cameras are out-of-focus or lenses are blurry, which prevent them from reading a slew of license plates in a row. In other instances, motorists cover their license plate with tape, or smear the numbers with mud, in an effort to prevent them from being detected by the cameras, Gutierrez-Scaccetti said.
Once license plates are identified, the process of tracking down motorists and sending them multiple bills can be a significant challenge, Gray said — especially if they’re out-of-staters. States with their own toll roads are generally amenable to helping track down drivers who try to evade a toll in another state. Massachusetts has a reciprocity agreement with New Hampshire and Maine to ensure that each state can go after toll violators. But some states without tolls have strict rules protecting the privacy of their residents, and are wary of sharing contact information with another state’s transportation department.
“Getting the technology right is plenty hard,” Gray said. “But the other part of the equation is, having read that tag, can I then get that address and get it paid? That’s where a lot of complexity comes in.’’
And even when people are tracked down, they often don’t care. The cost of bringing violators to court can far outweigh the value of the toll itself.
“If I live in another state and I’m never going back to Massachusetts, they can bill me all they want and I’m going to ignore it,” Gray said, describing the common reaction.
At Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise, officials accept that 5 percent of their tolls will go unpaid. Any more than that, they say, and they’re in trouble.
How do they ensure that doesn’t happen? They sell SunPasses like crazy, and they make the transponders available everywhere.
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation has opened four locations where E-ZPasses may be purchased in person — including one that opened last week in Square One Mall in Saugus— and the transponders are also available at AAA locations and a few car dealerships.
It’s a great deal less than Florida, where the state’s most popular grocery store, Publix, as well as CVS, other pharmacies, and gas stations sell the devices.
Also, at highway service centers, SunPasses are sold from vending machines — right there, alongside the sour gummy worms and cheese-flavored crackers.
In addition to toll discounts, SunPasses offer an extra perk: They can be used to pay for parking at the state’s major airports, where they have their own designated entrance and exit into airport parking lots.
“Florida went over and above what I would say most states have done to create this network for customer convenience,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti.
MassDOT spokeswoman Sara Lavoie said that the state’s privacy laws protecting consumer information makes it difficult to establish partnerships with outside retailers.
“We have an obligation to make sure that information remains secure,” she said. “This is a factor to consider as we explore adding new locations.”
Christopher Zegras, an associate professor of transportation and urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that 70 percent of toll transactions on Massachusetts roads occurring electronically is a number that must be improved if the switch to all-electronic tolling will be effective.
Zegras said MassDOT should establish stiffer requirements to ensure that nearly 100 percent of car owners in Massachusetts own an E-ZPass.
“There should be a very strong push to get most every vehicle in Massachusetts equipped with transponders,” Zegras said.
Still, all-electronic tolling is a technology that has taken some drivers, especially older Florida residents, time to become accustomed to. Even with the slew of signs warning drivers that they will be passing underneath a toll, many fail to understand the concept — until a surprise bill shows up in the mail.
“There are bumps and bruises,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said. “People don’t understand that they’ve got to pay attention to the mail.”Martine Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.