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State will expand discounts for Mass. E-ZPass users

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E-ZPass discounts for drivers using Massachusetts-issued transponders will be expanded when the state goes to all-electronic tolling.
E-ZPass discounts for drivers using Massachusetts-issued transponders will be expanded when the state goes to all-electronic tolling.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

As Massachusetts prepares to debut all-electronic tolling on the Massachusetts Turnpike this fall, the state will offer drivers a slight discount for using a Massachusetts E-ZPass, rather than an out-of-state transponder.

It turns out such a break for Massachusetts residents isn't new: The state will actually be expanding local discounts already offered at some tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike.

Jacquelyn Goddard, a Massachusetts Department of Transportation spokeswoman, said lower tolls for local residents date to legislation signed in the 1990s, which was meant to fund the Big Dig.

"MassDOT is legislatively required to continue this discount during the transition to a gantry rate pricing system," she wrote in an e-mail.

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The all-electronic tolling system will allow drivers to travel at highway speeds through metal gantries that read transponders inside their cars and charge their accounts, rather than forcing them to stop and pay at tollbooths.

Currently, drivers with a Massachusetts E-ZPass receive a 25-cent discount at the Weston and Allston-Brighton tolls and a 50-cent discount on the Sumner and Ted Williams tunnels.

Residents of Charlestown and Chelsea who go through a screening process can also get a discounted rate for the Tobin Bridge. East Boston, South Boston, and North End residents can also get a discount for the Sumner and Ted Williams Tunnel bridges.

In proposed prices that would take effect in late October, drivers with a Massachusetts E-ZPass would receive a discount on most tolls, ranging from 5 cents to 50 cents, compared with drivers whose transponders are issued by other states. For example, tolls on the Ted Williams Tunnel would cost $1.50 with a Massachusetts E-ZPass, versus $1.75 for drivers using another state's E-ZPass. Without a transponder at all, you would be mailed a bill for $2.65.

Creating broad discounts for drivers who use Massachusetts E-ZPasses follows the lead of such states as New Hampshire and Rhode Island, where drivers are eligible for cheaper tolls with in-state transponders. In New York, residents of certain neighborhoods are also eligible for E-ZPass discounts if they show proof of residency.

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But such local discounts are by no means uniform. Delaware and Pennsylvania, for instance, charge the same tolls to any driver with an E-ZPass transponder — regardless of where it was issued — though drivers who use cash are always charged more.

"We just thought that everybody who had E-ZPass deserved the discount, whether you're from Pennsylvania or New York," said Renee Vid Colborn, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Transportation officials say Massachusetts' discounts on the E-ZPass can be traced to the Big Dig, which buried stretches of Interstate 93 underneath the city in tunnels — and went famously over budget.

In 1997, Governor William Weld signed a bill that allowed the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority to increase tolls at Allston-Brighton, Route 128, and the Ted Williams and Sumner tunnels. The revenue was supposed to help finance the Big Dig.

But residents protested the hikes in 2002, when the tolls were supposed to rise. In response, the Turnpike Authority proposed a program that would give discounts to Massachusetts residents who opted into electronic tolling.

After the Globe raised questions about whether it would be constitutional to tax out-of-state residents a different rate than Massachusetts residents, the Turnpike Authority allowed residents from all states to get the discount. So under the current system, any driver — even those from out of state — can get a cheaper toll by using an E-ZPass account from Massachusetts.

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Massachusetts offers the transponders for free — for residents and nonresidents alike.

In New Hampshire, history helped officials decide that the state should give discounts specifically to drivers who set up E-ZPass accounts through New Hampshire — chiefly New Hampshire residents.

New Hampshire drivers were already used to a form of local discounts through tokens offered for the New Hampshire Turnpike System, explained Bill Boynton, a spokesman for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation. By purchasing tokens, drivers could save up to 50 percent on tolls.

When the state got rid of the tokens to make way for electronic tolls, officials offered drivers a New Hampshire E-ZPass discount instead.

Boynton said he thinks it makes sense: "In general, when I travel to another state, I get the convenience of the E-ZPass, but I don't expect the discount."


Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.