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For highway tolls, a new era is dawning

Mass. Pike’s electronic system spurs rethinking of where they’re used

When the state makes its much-anticipated switch to all-electronic tolling on the Massachusetts Turnpike in two years, drivers will encounter not just an overhauled collection system, but also new rates, with collections at new locations. And some residents unaccustomed to paying tolls, such as in Newton, are getting used to the idea they’ll have to fork over a little extra to make trips between exits within their community.

But the biggest impact of electronic tolling could be a rethinking of how and where tolls are collected throughout the state in the future — and not just on the turnpike.

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Plans have been in the works to eliminate cash tollbooths on the turnpike, a switch that would require all drivers to pay with an E-ZPass, or pay a bill that arrives in the mail. It’s an effort that officials have said would save millions of dollars in the long run.

In summer 2016, Massachusetts Department of Transportation officials will eliminate the existing rate structure, a complex system that charges drivers based on where they enter and exit the turnpike.

Instead, the highway will be divided into sections, with each section bookended by a toll gantry outfitted with an E-ZPass detector and license plate reader. Each time a driver passes beneath a gantry, a charge of 40 cents will be levied. If the driver passes under four gantries in one journey, the total charge will be $1.60.

For drivers who typically travel between Interstate 95 and Exit 17, in Newton Corner, the change won’t be a good one: Currently, no tollbooths exist on that stretch of road, but with all-electronic tolling, drivers will be charged a 40-cent fee.

Ted Hess-Mahan, a Newton alderman, said he’s generally a fan of all-electronic tolling — it makes driving through New Hampshire a breeze, he said. But he worries the new toll in Newton could cause more people to take local roads to bypass the toll.

That could be particularly problematic at the perilous roundabout at Exit 17, an intersection that residents have dubbed “the Circle of Death.”

“What I am concerned about is whether anyone has looked at the traffic impact from putting a toll collector right there,” he said. “It could make the Circle of Death even more dangerous than it already is.”

But Highway Administrator Frank DePaola contends the new system will ease congestion on local roads — especially along Routes 16 and 30, which are currently used as shortcuts by people seeking to avoid the toll at Exit 15. With electronic tolling, those shortcuts won’t save them any money.

As for increasing congestion between exits 16 and 17, as toll-averse drivers opt for local roads: not likely, DePaola said. Using the side streets would simply take too long to make it worthwhile for most drivers.

“I don’t see anyone purposely driving through that traffic circle to get on the Pike there just to save 40 cents,” he said.

In some cases, such as journeys from West Newton to downtown Boston, the new toll rates will be cheaper: Currently, traveling from West Newton’s Exit 16 to Copley Square’s Exit 22 costs $1.25; under the new toll structure, it will cost $1.20.

And there will be no tolls for travel between exits 4 and 6 near Springfield, and exits 10, 10A, and 11 around Worcester.

“The decision will benefit residents of these areas by allowing them to move freely through their cities to access employment, education, and health care opportunities,” MassDOT spokesman Sara Lavoie said in a statement.

Transportation officials are considering other spots to make changes. One idea is lowering the $3.50 toll incurred leaving East Boston and Logan Airport to get to downtown Boston. That fee could be split, with drivers paying smaller tolls in each direction.

And no-cash tolling on the turnpike could be a first step toward probing the opportunities for tolling in other parts of the state — a possible solution to the complaints that many residents lodge about the lack of equity between commuters in different regions.

“Ever since the Big Dig, there has been a huge amount of frustration from people who live west of Boston and commute on the Mass. Pike that there isn’t a toll on Route 93 and the Central Artery,” said Hess-Mahan.

“Now they want to add another toll at West Newton, and there’s no consideration that we’re paying for the Central Artery, benefitting people living north and south of Boston.”

MassDOT officials cannot expand tolls to new stretches of road without the help of state and federal legislators, who would have to enact new laws to allow for more tolling.

But state transportation officials may be able to better make their case if they have evidence that all-electronic toll gantries are cost-effective, easy to install, and simple to manage. That could help shore up some pie-in-the-sky proposals, such as building a new bridge to Cape Cod, one with tolls, or instituting premium-price express lanes on Route 3, DePaola said.

“It’s something we’d be interested in talking to the Legislature about,” DePaola said.

Patrick Jones, executive director and chief executive of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association — it’s an organization that represents owners and operators of toll facilities — said that switching to all-electronic tolling could also open the door to new ways of thinking about tolling: congestion pricing, for instance. Under it, tolls fluctuate, based on the time of day or the number of cars on the road.

“All-electronic tolling allows for a more nuanced, more precise tolling based on a number of factors,” Jones said.

Martine Powers can be reached at martine.powers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.
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