BOSTON (CBS) – In just a few weeks, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) will flip the switch for all-electronic tolling (AET) along the Mass. Turnpike. The new system is scheduled to “go live” on October 28.
The change means drivers will no longer slow down or stop to pay cash at toll booths, a transition meant to improve safety and reduce congestion. Technology on the metal gantries looming over the Pike will either scan drivers’ E-ZPass transponders, or take a photo of their license plate and send a bill in the mail.
Depending on where people commute, the new system could mean they are paying more or less than the old system.
During its public awareness campaign, MassDOT has reiterated that AET is designed to be “revenue neutral,” meaning it will not add additional cash to state coffers.
However, the WBZ I-Team uncovered a document that could change that.
To help set the new toll rates, MassDOT hired consultant Jacobs Engineering Group this spring. Buried in the fine print of the contract, there are details about what other types of changes drivers could see down the road.
Along with the traffic and revenue studies for the AET implementation, MassDOT also included a request to study congestion pricing, which could mean collecting higher rates during rush hour.
Along the Pike, drivers quickly rejected the concept, telling WBZ the majority of people, especially low-income workers, don’t have control over their schedules.
“I think that’s a messed up idea,” said Jeff Balter. “People are barely getting by as it is.”
MassDOT’s request for bidders mentioned studying new toll locations, potentially at the New Hampshire border. The document also lists possibilities like carpool lanes and vehicle miles traveled, the policy charging motorists based on the distance they commute.
The new AET system has already faced some controversy over privacy concerns and how long MassDOT will be retaining its data.
“People aren’t ready for it right now. You talk about changing or raising tolls in this state, and people get upset,” said Mary Connaughton with Pioneer Institute, the public policy research organization.
Connaughton once sat on the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority board of directors. She said the new technology will make it easy for the state to change direction in the future.
“It’s not that difficult to move to congestion pricing once you have electronic tolling in,” Connaughton said.
When the WBZ I-Team first requested a copy of the consulting contract, a MassDOT spokesman said it would only be available for review in person and accompanied by the state’s tolling director.
After not making the tolling director available for a meeting, WBZ filed a public records request appeal with the Secretary of State for a copy of the document.
MassDOT eventually provided the contract, but said nobody from the agency would be available for an interview about the details.
However, the WBZ I-Team caught up to MassDOT’s highway administrator, Tom Tinlin, during one of the recent public hearings about AET.
Tinlin, who signed the contract with Jacobs Engineering Group in May, downplayed the other traffic studies listed in the fine print.
“I think when you’re doing a contract and you know you are entering into a new way of doing business, you want to make sure you are incorporating all that you can in there,” Tinlin told the WBZ I-Team.
The highway administrator insisted the three-year deal with a maximum payout of $1.5 million was simply a way to give the transportation agency options down the road.
While none of the services are guaranteed, according to agency’s request: “MassDOT anticipates, and the Contractor shall be prepared and qualified” for the services.
“I can tell you this right now: We are not looking to raise the price on anything,” Tinlin said, pointing to Governor Baker’s recent opposition to the concept of vehicle miles traveled. “As I stand here right now, we are not looking at congestion pricing or anything other than taking new technology to an old way of doing business.”
Despite those assurances, transportation observers like Connaughton remain unconvinced.
“Why are those things in the contract if it’s something they are not ever going to consider?” she wondered. “Of course they’re going to consider it. It’s the way of the future.”
Drivers like Keith Smith, who commutes about 400 weekly miles on the Pike from Hopedale to downtown Boston, wonder how all the changes will affect his budget.
“That’s a big concern of mine because it’s money out of my pocket every single day, so there’s no reason why it should be more than it already is,” Smith said.
Yitz Kashnow perhaps spoke for a lot of skeptical drivers when he told WBZ, “I think they are going to have tolls in people’s driveways at some point.”
Ryan Kath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.