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The Boston Globe

Metro

Starts & Stops

Curiosities abound for Pike motorists

Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

As if it weren’t already hard enough to drive the Massachusetts Turnpike.

Last week, readers were beset with questions centering on several changes they had noticed along the east-west thoroughfare during their daily commute.

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First up: Chuck Bartlett of Somerville, who was driving home from work recently when he encountered an unusual traffic pattern in Boston: The exit from northbound Interstate 93 onto the westbound Pike was backed up, which rarely happens, and the queue was moving slowly.

Once he got onto the Pike, the plot thickened: The right lane was closed. But not just run-of-the-mill, looks-like-they’re-doing-work-for-a-couple-days-with-orange-cones closed. Instead, the lane was painted solid to indicate that no one would be using it anytime soon. There were orange barrels, too, demarcating the closure. As he continued west, the lane closure shifted to the left side of the road, where semipermanent-looking concrete barriers had been erected.

“This lane closure has continued into this week and has added a solid 15-20 minutes to my commute,” Bartlett wrote. “What they are doing and how long will this closure last? It’s a big pain in the butt!”

Bad luck, Chuck: The lane closures, mentioned by MassDOT in a few e-mail notifications and on Twitter, are going to continue for awhile. Construction crews are working to rebuild the median on the Pike that stretches between Commonwealth Avenue and Dalton Street, as well as the 52-year-old Commonwealth Avenue bridge overpass.

The work is reminiscent of the weekend lane restrictions on the Pike extension that launched a thousand headaches back in March and April, as construction crews revamped the ceiling of the tunnel that runs under the Hynes Convention Center. Those lane closures occurred only during weekends and limited traffic to one lane in either direction.

The bright side: This new project only uses one lane of traffic, keeping three lanes going in each direction. But unfortunately, the project requires much more extensive work and a 24-hour construction zone — so it’s going to affect drivers for much, much longer.

Though MassDOT notifications said the first round of left-side lane closures would last six months, MassDOT spokeswoman Cyndi Roy-Gonzalez said it might be several months longer, depending on weather. Regardless, the current lane closures will be in place around the clock until next year — when they switch to the other side of the road and continue on for another year.

“In all,” Roy-Gonzalez said, “we expect two years of a three-lane MassPike in this area.”

Bartlett’s response: “Bummer.”

Not-so-easy Pass

Further west on the Pike, motorist and Twitter aficionado G. Ravishanker (@ravishan) snapped a photo on the westbound Pike, approaching the tolls at Route 128 during evening rush hour. He was stuck in standstill traffic waiting for an E-ZPass lane. (We’ll not say a word on that whole driving-while-using-your-phone issue.)

“#EZPass lanes are so . . . long and there are 3 cash lanes with absolutely no one,” Ravishanker wrote. “It is inefficiency.”

It’s a familiar, if infuriating, sight: The E-ZPass lanes are all backed up, while the cash lanes remain clog-free. What gives? Isn’t the E-ZPass supposed to make life a little easier for the tech-embracing folks with transponders, rather than offering quick passage to the old-fashioned cash users? And why can’t all the cash toll lanes on the Pike be mixed-use lanes, with both E-ZPass and greenbacks accepted?

In some ways, the long lines leading into the toll plaza are a little misleading. The cause of the backups is often not really the process of getting through the E-ZPass lane, but instead the awkward merging that must occur as the manifold lines of slow-moving cars filter back into highway lanes. That, Roy-Gonzalez said, is what prevents cars from speeding off into the sunset as they leave the toll plaza, and it has a ripple effect on other cars approaching from behind. So, in theory, even if you zip through the cash lane as your E-ZPass users continue to idle, you’ll still have to deal with that annoying merging once you pass the toll booth.

Still, other states have mixed-use toll lanes, and it’s frustrating that we don’t have them here. Roy-Gonzalez said it was an issue of technology: Cash lanes outfitted with E-ZPass readers must also have high-speed video cameras to detect the license plates of cars who pass underneath without a transponder and don’t stop to pay in cash. But because of the uneven traffic flow that would occur in a mixed-use lane — with some people stopping to pay, while others breeze through at low speeds — it would be difficult to time a camera correctly so it would detect the license plates of all vehicles that pass underneath, Roy-Gonzalez said.

Additionally, Roy-Gonzalez said, MassDOT officials have worried that mixed-use toll lanes would be fraught with opportunities for abuse. Because it would be up to the toll taker to verify that a person paid in cash, rather than blowing through the toll with an E-ZPass, discrepancies on unpaid tolls could come down to a he-said-she-said between drivers and toll collectors.

Of course, this will become a moot point when — if the state’s current plans come to fruition — the toll booths are demolished over the next two years and the state installs all-electronic tolling gantries that will allow all vehicles to proceed through the tolls without slowing.

Hip to see squares

Which brings us to our next Pike-related topic. All the way out near Exit 9, Sam Gilbert of Sturbridge spotted something weird.

A series of white painted squares — about 2 feet on each side, he estimated — had appeared on the pavement, placed at seemingly random intervals close to the exit.

“I just recently started noticing them,” Gilbert wrote. “On my way home tonight, I noticed about 5-6 of them in the area of the toll booths . . . They were on both sides of the road, but didn’t seem to be spaced apart in any consistent pattern.”

Weird indeed. My first thought: Perhaps the mysterious white squares were the highway equivalent of crop circles, cryptic messages from extraterrestrial beings trying to communicate with us through our endless ribbons of pavement.

The real reason, it turns out, was a little less fanciful. The squares are related to the all-electronic tolling project. The painted squares themselves are actually only markers to indicate something much smaller: In the middle of each square is a set of nails, drilled into the pavement, that will serve as “survey control points” during construction.

It’s a little complicated, but essentially the nails are inserted into the pavement at spots where engineers have highly precise measurements on the GPS coordinates and elevation. That’s important because once they start construction — in the case of this project, tearing down toll booths and building the all-electronic overhead toll gantries — they need to ensure that the work occurs at the correct location and at the exact right elevation. The nails are used as a reference point, embedded just far away enough from the construction site that they will not budge from their original placement.

Think of it as kind of like the way seafarers use a lighthouse in the distance, an immobile object, to keep on the right track.

And the white squares are there because if highway engineers went looking for little sets of nails stuck in the asphalt, they’d never find them in the sea of dark pavement. It’s likely that drivers will notice more of these curious squares on other stretches of the Pike in the coming months.

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