After years of scrounging for change and straining for his wallet, Bill Desmond finally caved. He picked up an E-ZPass transponder, joining the cashless era more than 20 years after it began.
Now, he’ll be able to pay his turnpike tolls without even slowing down. But Desmond, 65, wants to get one thing straight. He’s not happy about it.
“I didn’t want them to track me,” Desmond said as he waited in line at the East Boston E-ZPass customer service center last week. “And I didn’t want the government to have access to my accounts.”
But since the state tore down the toll booths along the turnpike and moved to all-electronic tolling last fall, holdouts like Desmond are a dying breed. Drivers without transponders have been billed through the mail at a higher toll price since late October, spurring even staunch resisters to give up the fight.
In the past year, the number of E-ZPasses in circulation has increased by 587,000, about 22 percent, according to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.
Currently, some 86 percent of toll transactions are paid with transponders.
Massachusetts began automatic tolling in the mid-1990s, when the state introduced the MassPass system. That was replaced by the FastLane system, which was rebranded as the E-ZPass in 2012. Toll booths were removed from the Tobin Bridge in 2014.
For most drivers, the devices were a godsend, allowing them to breeze through the tolls with little delay. But some clung to the old ways, choosing to sit in cash-only lines while others zoomed past.
They had their reasons — concerns of government surveillance, an affinity for certain toll booth workers, general procrastination. But now, the one-two punch of higher tolls and paper bills has done what mere inconvenience couldn’t, persuading them to finally — finally! — get an E-ZPass.
After getting bill after bill in the mail, Desmond found his privacy concerns took a back seat. When he was penalized about $20 for a late payment, he decided his long-held opposition wasn’t worth it anymore.
“I’m giving up,” said Desmond, who was carrying five bright-orange envelopes of bills. There were plenty more at home, he said.
Patrick Marvin, a state Transportation Department spokesman, said the agency respects the choices of drivers who choose to forgo the transponder, but he points out the benefits: cheaper tolls, faster travel in states with specific E-ZPass lanes, and “peace of mind” since it uses automatic deductions.
Holdouts were given plenty of notice. After the toll plazas came down, the Transportation Department instituted a six-month grace period. Drivers who were charged higher tolls could get reimbursed for the lower rates if they registered for E-ZPasses before May 8.
That deadline sent drivers headlong into the transponder era. Well, some of them anyway. Anna Encarnacion of Dorchester had to drag her boyfriend, Marc Delisca, to the East Boston customer service center. (Drivers can also order them by mail, for free).
Delisca had a list of excuses. He didn’t use the turnpike that often, and it took time to make it to the center. In full disclosure, he wouldn’t have even known about the deadline if not for Encarnacion’s gentle reminders.
Carlos Latorre of East Boston had been meaning to get a transponder for a while, but never found the right time. He takes the turnpike into Boston every day to buy supplies for his ice cream business, so there was plenty of motivation. But it stayed tomorrow’s problem.
“I was just too lazy to come in here,” he said with a smile and a shrug.
Laziness had nothing to do with it for Doc Reed. The Dorchester resident worried the state would overcharge his credit card, and he wasn’t giving the government any more than he had to.
“Every penny you make, the government tries to take,” he said.
Even when his coworkers at the City of Boston gave him grief, he held out. They could go get one for him if they cared that much, he said.
Then the bills came. The government was going to get its money either way, he realized. And he sure didn’t want them getting extra.
Even with the paper bills and higher costs, some drivers will shun the transponder and its convenience. Some will be justified: there have been reports of overbilling, and the gantries do record your speed every time you pass through them, to the dismay of privacy advocates.
But for people such as Maria Ortiz, who came to East Boston to pick up her first E-ZPass last week, abstaining from the system makes little sense.
She would have gotten a pass sooner but didn’t have a car until she got a Nissan. A transponder was next on her list.
“It’s crazy that people don’t use it,” she said. “It’s just so much easier.”Nicole Dungca can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.