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New tolling rates frustrate some commuters

The overhead gantries on the Mass. Pike in Newton.
The overhead gantries on the Mass. Pike in Newton. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

When the state Department of Transportation announced the new toll rates on the Massachusetts Turnpike, drivers seemed to be getting a good deal. Two-thirds of trips on the highway would cost the same or less, officials said, and the move to all-electronic tolling would be largely “revenue-neutral.”

But for some commuters, particularly in the Newton area, the new overhead gantries are quietly siphoning more money from their transponder accounts, a jump that has caught many off guard.

For Faust Fabio, who lives in Newton and works in Chelsea, a one-way trip on the Mass. Pike and the Tobin Bridge has increased from about $1 to $2.95 since the new rates went into effect in late October. Coupled with other price changes on his way home, he will probably wind up paying more than $300 a year in additional toll costs, he said.

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“What really irks me is that they said there wasn’t going to be a big increase in tolls,” he said.

While traveling on many sections of the highway costs less, drivers must now pay a 35-cent toll in Newton, where there had been no tollbooth, as well as different rates at other locations.

Other drivers say the all-electronic system, for all its convenience, has left them in the dark over what they are paying. Leslie Lombino, who takes the turnpike on her commute from Somerville to Waltham, said she used to rely on the big signs posted near the tollbooths but now zooms past without knowing her toll price. There are new signs posted on the right side of the road, but they are less prominent.

“It’s pretty interesting and almost a little tricky of the state to do that,” she said. “You have to double-check the prices online or look into your E-ZPass account.”

For drivers with an E-ZPass transponder, tolls are automatically deducted from an account connected to a credit card, making it relatively easy to overlook the increase. Those who choose not to receive monthly paper statements have to log into their online account to see the difference.

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The increase is much higher for drivers who aren’t aware they need a transponder. Drivers without an E-ZPass transponder are sent a bill for their tolls after the gantries take a photo of their license plates. They will be charged a higher rate but can be reimbursed if they obtain a free transponder in the next 3½ months.

Transportation officials say the move to all-electronic tolling, which is slated to cost the state more than $460 million, has markedly improved traffic flow, made the roads safer by eliminating the need for abrupt lane changes at tollbooths, and will improve air quality by reducing idling.

The state’s highway administrator, Thomas Tinlin, said officials went out of their way to let people know about the new tolls. They held several public meetings, including one in Newton, and put a calculator on the Department of Transportation and E-ZPass Massachusetts websites to let drivers figure out their costs.

Still, Tinlin was not surprised that the increase crept up on some commuters.

“Anytime you do something new, in my history of public service, there’s a degree of people who pay attention and others who don’t,” he said.

The Newton tolls aren’t technically new, state officials added, because they were in place for decades before Governor William Weld removed them in the 1990s. They also point out that the prior administration chose the locations of the gantries.

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Adding a gantry in Newton should help relieve some congestion on local roads, since many drivers who lived outside of the city had cut through the area to avoid paying tolls. Now, those drivers can no longer benefit, officials said.

Officials note that most trips cost either the same or less under the new system. For example, a trip from Natick to downtown Boston now costs $1.95, down from $2.20. And the toll from the New York border to downtown Boston costs $5.95 instead of $6.60.

But Marc Goldberg, who lives in Wellesley, doesn’t think the state did enough to let people know about the increases. The mantra, he said, was that most drivers would be unaffected or see their tolls go down. But for many regular commuters, there was a significant increase, he said.

“For those people going into Boston, you’re basically doubling your toll,” he said.

Goldberg used to run his investment company out of Kendall Square, but said the tolls and the traffic on the turnpike helped persuade the company to relocate to Wellesley.

Tinlin defended the process and urged people to focus on the big picture.

“Of the less than one-third of people that have seen a nickel here and there or a dime here and there, I completely sympathize, but it’s not about that one person,” he said. “This isn’t choosing one customer over another. This is a more comprehensive approach to that.”

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Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ndungca or on Facebook at facebook.com/startsandstops.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misstated the increase in cost of a trip from Newton to Chelsea.