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For 600 retirees, no more free rides on Mass. Pike

Next week, officials will send letters to the affected employees saying their transponders or pass cards will be deactivated on Sept. 11.
Next week, officials will send letters to the affected employees saying their transponders or pass cards will be deactivated on Sept. 11.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

For years, state officials have handed out a generous perk to hundreds of retiring employees of the old turnpike authority: a transponder or pass card that lets them skip the tolls on the turnpike, the Tobin Bridge, and the airport tunnels.

Now, transportation officials are ending the retirement benefit for more than 600 former employees, saying they had inadvertently continued a practice that should have ended in 2009, when the Turnpike Authority was merged into the state Transportation Department.

“It has been brought to MassDOT’s attention that a number of retirees that retired between Nov. 1, 2009 to the present, who were assigned a non-revenue transponder, kept that transponder once they retired,” said Department spokesman Michael Verseckes in an e-mailed statement. “This had been an ongoing common practice under the former Turnpike Authority, which should have stopped effective Nov. 1, 2009.”

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The practice continued, Verseckes said, “because of a lack of internal communication.”

Next week, officials will send letters to the affected employees saying their transponders or pass cards will be deactivated on Sept. 11.

The change of heart came after the Globe questioned transportation officials’ claim that they were required by law or union contract to let turnpike retirees travel toll roads, tunnels, and bridges for free. As recently as this week, transportation officials said former turnpike employees were “grandfathered” under union contracts.

Former Turnpike Authority board member Mary Z. Connaughton called the state admission “truly startling.”

“The public should rightfully question what else could be going wrong,” said Connaughton, who is now director of government transparency at the Pioneer Institute, a public policy think tank.

In all, 798 retired Turnpike Authority employees, who worked as truck drivers, electricians, engineers, and a host of other jobs, have either a transponder or a pass they can swipe at toll booths to avoid paying tolls.

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Verseckes said that nearly 200 people who retired before Nov. 1, 2009, will be allowed to keep their transponders, because it was an accepted practice to give the devices away before the merger.

The value of the transponders and passes depends on a person’s driving patterns, but someone who uses the turnpike daily could easily avoid $1,500 in tolls in a year. More occasional users of toll roads and bridges might save a few hundred dollars annually. The passes and transponders only worked in Massachusetts.

Most of the turnpike retirees chose pass cards that they swipe to get through tolls. Those would have been phased out when Massachusetts switches to full electronic tolling in 2016.

By contrast, the transponders would have worked indefinitely.

All employees of the now defunct Turnpike Authority were given free transponders or passes while working and then allowed to keep them after retirement. But they were controversial and as far back as 2006 then Transportation Secretary John Cogliano tried to take them away. Ultimately, only Turnpike board members and managers gave up the benefit.

“We’re public servants and we should be paying tolls just like the taxpayers,” Cogliano said at the time, according to the Boston Herald.

The Turnpike Authority, which oversaw construction of the Big Dig, was in financial trouble when Governor Deval Patrick merged it along with several other transportation agencies such as the Registry of Motor Vehicles into the Department of Transportation.

But the new agency continued some of the lingering benefits of the old system, including the free transponders and passes for former Turnpike Authority employees.

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They let the practice continue even though it was not a benefit contained in agreements with the unions representing the workers, Verseckes told the Globe.

In fact, one union official, Robert Cullinane, principal executive officer of Teamsters Local 127, said his union explicitly gave up the post-retirement perk in 2012. Even so, members of his union have continued to receive the benefit upon retirement, including many who took advantage of Governor Charlie Baker’s recent early retirement incentive, which was designed to cut costs.

Another union official, John Dumas, president of IBEW Local 103, said that although the benefit was not contained in any of its agreements, the union’s lawyers believe it is a past practice and should continue unless it is bargained away. His union, which represents electricians and telecommunications specialists who worked for the Turnpike Authority, may fight any unilateral change, Dumas said.

But even if the former Turnpike employees lose the toll-free privileges, another group of state retirees will continue to get free transportation, say state officials. More than 3,400 retired MBTA workers are allowed to ride the system’s buses and trains for free by tapping their ID card at fare boxes and fare gates, an agency spokesman said.

The benefit is spelled out in the agency’s contract with the Boston Carmen’s Union. MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the authority has raised the possibility of eliminating the perks for retirees in past negotiations but wouldn’t say why the proposal went nowhere.

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Carmen’s Union president James O’Brien said getting rid of the benefit was “never a major or minor part of the last negotiations, so I have no idea what he [Pesaturo] is referring to.”


Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes@globe.com.