All-electronic tolling hits the Massachusetts Turnpike at 10 p.m. Friday, and the wholesale replacement of the infamous tollbooths will mark a major change for the thousands of drivers on the Turnpike each day.
No longer will they have to slow down to pay their tolls; instead, cars can maintain highway speeds as they pass under 16 giant gantries that automatically charge drivers' accounts.
Sounds simple, but the transition could be a bit bumpy. Here's what you need to know:
Q. Why is the state doing this?
The biggest reasons, state officials say, are to improve safety, traffic, and air quality. If you haven't noticed, the Pike is a bit of a nightmare during rush hour, especially as you approach the toll plazas. On holiday weekends, traffic sometimes backs up for miles.
With all-electronic tolling, the tollbooths will be demolished, so drivers won't need to pause to drop $1.25 in someone's hand, or make sure the sensors detect your E-ZPass. That should substantially reduce congestion and exhaust emissions.
Q. So on Monday, I'll be able to just cruise down the entire Pike at highway speeds?
Well, no. Even though the gantries will be collecting tolls, the tollbooths are still in the way.
Q. But I can just speed through those tollbooths, right?
Afraid not. In fact, expect traffic to get much worse for about a month.
To demolish the tollbooths, the middlelanes of the toll plazas will become giant construction zones, reducing the number of lanes from four or five down to only two or three. Thomas Tinlin, the state's highway administrator, says that in the short term commuters should try to plan their schedules around the delays, and to take public transit if possible.
Peter Furth, a traffic expert at Northeastern University, said drivers who travel through the Weston and the Allston-Brighton tolls will probably be hit the hardest, according to the state's calculations. And if you are a late riser, look out.
"In all these cases, the people stuck with the greatest delay will be those arriving at the tail end of the peak period, say, 8:45, because they'll have to join the back of a queue that by then will have grown pretty large," he wrote in an e-mail. "For less delay, either arrive earlier, or wait until 9:45 to give the queue time to dissipate."
Q. Why is this construction slowdown so long, and when will it end?
They're not just demolishing the tollbooths. They're also filling in underground tunnels that housed utilities and gave workers entry to the booths, extending the demolition process.
The first phase of construction, which will bring the worst traffic, should be done around Nov. 22.
At that point, traffic will be rerouted back to the middle lanes, where the tollbooths were before. But speed restrictions will remain in place while crews demolish the tollbooths to the side.
By the end of the year, however, the work should be done. Officials expect all tollbooth infrastructure should be gone.
Q. How much are we paying for this?
The state is on the hook for a $130 million contract to Raytheon to build and maintain the gantries; a $201 million contract to TransCore for billing services and staffing customer service centers; and up to$132.8 million for the demolition of the tollbooths.
In the past, state officials said all-electronic tolling would save up to $50 million, but — adding in updated costs — officials now think it will save just $5 million in operating costs annually.
Q. Will the toll rates stay the same?
Some will change under the new pricing system that was approved by the state's Department of Transportation board. But nearly two-thirds of trips will cost the same as or less than they do now.
Q. I still don't have an E-ZPass. Can I hold out any longer?
You'll still be charged because the gantries will photograph your license plate and send a bill to the address connected to your car. Originally, that method of billing would have cost you more than if you broke down and got an E-ZPass, which comes with a discount.
But on Thursday, the state transportation department announced that drivers without a transponder would receive a six-month "grace period."
They'll be charged for the higher costs at first but can get credits back to their account once they sign up for an E-ZPass Massachusetts account.
Also, be sure to get a Massachusetts E-ZPass account, which is open to drivers from all states. Out-of-state transponders result in higher costs.
Q. Fine. I'll get one. But where?
You can order one online for free, or visit customer service centers in Auburn, East Boston, Natick, Saugus, Haymarket in Boston, Lee, and Ludlow. Several RMV, AAA, and Herb Chambers dealership locations also carry them.