First full day traveling Pike with no toll booths is a smooth ride
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NATICK — People streamed through the Registry of Motor Vehicles at the Natick Service Plaza on Saturday morning, exiting with E-ZPass transponders in hand.
"They were quick and efficient," Carolyn Weed of Mendon said after she picked up a transponder inside the RMV.
The new electronic tolling system began Friday at 10 p.m., and it will eventually allow traffic to move freely through tolling points at highway speeds. Demolition of the toll booths along Route 90 also started, accompanied by warnings from the Department of Transportation about increased traffic for about a month.
Construction crews put tarps over toll booths, with many State Police cruisers parked nearby. Minimal traffic was visible Saturday morning along Route 90 from Natick into Boston. Flashing signs warned "NO STOPPING AT BOOTH" and "TOLL DEMO IN PROGRESS" near the Weston and Allston/Brighton booths. The speed limit for the construction zones near toll booths is 15 miles per hour.
With the first day of all-electronic tolling seeming to have gone smoothly, officials are holding their breath for the real traffic test come Monday morning.
"It seems as though people have been listening to us [today]," said Department of Transportation highway administrator Thomas Tinlin, who spent much of Saturday traveling Route 90 to observe the all-electronic transition. "They're giving us a lot of room on the road, not traveling on the Turnpike as much, giving us plenty of space to do our jobs."
Monday's commute, however, may not be so easy.
Tinlin suggested altering work schedules Monday to avoid commuting during rush hour and using public transportation if at all possible.
And for those who must use affected areas of the highway, Tinlin urged, "Please stay in your lane going through these work zones, obey the [15 mile-per-hour] speed limit, and don't stop at the booths."
Under the new system, if you pass through a gantry without an E-ZPass transponder in your car, a camera will photograph your license plate and officials will send a bill to the address connected to your car. The rate will be slightly higher than that for E-ZPass to cover associated costs.
The Department of Transportation set up additional hours this weekend and Monday at E-ZPass centers, including the one in the RMV at the Natick Service Plaza, to accommodate an expected influx of people getting transponders.
E-ZPass centers across the state processed 881 customers between 7 a.m. and noon Saturday, said Jacquelyn Goddard, spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation.
Due to a scheduled shutdown of the E-ZPass account system, customers will not be able to check their account balances or sign up for new accounts until 7 a.m. Tuesday, said Goddard.
The migration of 1.7 million accounts from the old "ezpassma.com" website to the new "ezdrivema.com" website will take several days of IT personnel working round-the-clock, Goddard said.
Most customers coming in and out of the Natick RMV said they rarely use Route 90, but when they do, they didn't want to be charged extra for not having a transponder.
Some customers outside the RMV were frustrated by the E-ZPass system overall.
"It's an inconvenience in more ways than it's a convenience," said Amanda Pollender of Framingham, who came in to recharge the balance on her account, which she said she can't do online because she has had problems with the website — and then when she arrived in person, she couldn't recharge the account because the system is down.
Amy Gilbert of Natick left the RMV fuming because, she said, the staff were focused on issuing new transponders and not able to assist with her problem — even though it stemmed from an E-ZPass, she said. She moved her transponder to a new car and didn't realize she had to change the vehicle associated with the transponder accordingly. Months later, even after fixing the records and paying for the tolls, she said that she could not get the registration on her car renewed because of this E-ZPass problem.
She doesn't understand what she has to do next to get it fixed, Gilbert said as she flipped through a folder full of letters.
She said staff at the RMV would not provide her with a note to show she had made another good-faith effort to come in and work out the problem.
"The system is wonderful — when it works," said Gilbert. "I love going through quickly and not having to stop to pay a toll. But they just need some work on their administration."
The Department of Transportation is offering a grace period during which customers will be reimbursed when charged extra for not having an E-ZPass if they then apply for a transponder, to "ensure that vehicle owners who intend to get a transponder are not penalized for not having an active transponder when all-electronic tolling goes live."
In anticipation of the increased traffic when the workweek begins, the Department of Transportation has offered a list of travel tips on its website, which include the Waze navigation app, viewing Department of Transportation live traffic cameras, and using public transportation.
"Community members will soon see the benefits of electronic tolls, including an increase in safety, a lessening of traffic congestion, and a reduction of greenhouse gases," the Department of Transportation said in a statement.
And officials are hoping the commuters affected by the construction zones during Monday's rush hour feel the trade-off is worth it.