After years of planning, months of construction work, and a weeks-long trial run with new license plate detection equipment, the Maurice J. Tobin Memorial Bridge officially switched to cash-free tolling Monday morning, and, just as promised, morning rush hour traffic moved a little faster than usual.
"Thankfully no one came to a screeching halt," said Transportation Secretary Richard A. Davey. "People obeyed the signs that told them not to stop, and I think that people found that the fast lane is now actually a fast lane."
The new tolling system eliminates cash toll booths. Instead, a driver must use an E-ZPass transponder to pay a $2.50 fee. If a driver does not have a transponder, a high-speed camera captures the vehicle's license plate number, then sends a bill in the mail for $3, plus a 50-cent convenience fee.
Officials at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation are using the Tobin Bridge as a trial run for their plans to extend all-electronic tolling to the entire Massachusetts Turnpike by summer 2016.
By Monday, half of the toll booths on the Tobin Bridge had been removed, and traffic flowed freely through the left-hand lanes while construction crews worked to rip out the remaining concrete booths in the next several weeks.
Now, the E-ZPass detectors, as well as the license plate detection cameras, reside at the end of the bridge closest to downtown Boston.
"Amazing! Traffic was a breeze!!!" one Twitter user wrote about his Monday morning commute on the Tobin Bridge. Another, Cori Wineberg, tweeted: "No cash on the Tobin means no more traffic on the way to work."
Despite efforts by the transportation agency to push residents to register for E-ZPass, 28 percent of people who cross the Tobin do not have the transponder. MassDOT wants to reduce that number: Davey said he anticipates that, in coming years, the cost difference between paying by E-ZPass and through Pay-by-Plate will become more dramatic.
MassDOT will now have to grapple with tracking down out-of-state drivers without transponders who decline to pay the bill that arrives in the mail.
According to MassDOT records, there were $5.52 million in unpaid tolls and extra fines that were not paid by drivers who breeze through the E-ZPass lanes without a transponder. The states outside Massachusetts with the most offenders were were Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, New York, and Florida.
Massachusetts has partnerships with New Hampshire and Maine in which people in those states can be barred from renewing their licenses and registrations because of outstanding toll fines in Massachusetts. Davey said most other transportation departments in New England and the Northeast have expressed an interest in similar reciprocity agreements.
Even with some drivers ignoring their "pay-by-plate" bills, Davey said he anticipates the switch to all-electronic tolling will result in significant savings. The 25 toll collectors who operated the Tobin Bridge booths have been transferred to vacant posts on the Massachusetts Turnpike.
If the state did not plan to switch to cash-free tolling, Davey said, MassDOT would need to budget to rebuild the 1950s-era toll booths up and down the turnpike that are currently falling apart.
"They're in tough shape," he said. "From the inside, they look like a trench in a World War I movie."
Martine Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.