Globe Editorial

Mass. Pike needs open tolling; until then, quick fixes will help

July 1, 2011

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TURNPIKE TOLLS are a fact of life, but collecting them shouldn’t add another inconvenience to a commuter’s daily journey.

Yet as regular Massachusetts Turnpike drivers know, the slowdowns at the Boston-area toll plazas can be more vexing than the tolls themselves. And as other New England states have demonstrated, there’s a better way to do business. At New Hampshire’s Hampton tolls, an open-road tolling system, installed for about $18 million, now lets travelers with transponders cruise through at highway speed. So why doesn’t Massachusetts install such a system at the Weston plaza?

Before such a system can be installed, the pike’s Charles River crossing, which narrows traffic as vehicles leave the tollbooths heading east, needs to be widened, says Transportation Secretary Jeffrey B. Mullan. And for that bridge rebuilding to occur, the state must find money in its strapped capital budget. All told, such a project could be half a decade away, Mullan says.

Meanwhile, there are other, quicker, fixes the pike should explore. Currently, individual lanes at both the Weston plaza and the Brighton tolls are designated either for “cash only’’ use or for driver with Fast Lane transponders. If the cash lanes were equipped so Fast Lane drivers could also use them, it would significantly reduce the lane shifting that now occurs as drivers approach.

Both New Hampshire and Maine do, as do as number of other eastern states. So why doesn’t Massachusetts? Mullan offers two concerns: First, it costs about $50,000 to render a lane transponder-ready. Second, he says, it’s harder to audit revenue collections from dual-use lanes.

But the price tag is hardly staggering; only about 10 lanes would need to be equipped to read transponders. As to revenue-tracking, it hasn’t been a big problem in Maine and New Hampshire. If those states can make such a system work, surely Massachusetts can as well.

Mullan says MassDOT wants to test an open-road tolling system, whereby cars would pass through at driving speed and either be billed electronically or have a picture taken of their plates and a bill sent to their homes. But state transportation officials have been talking about such a system for years, yet there’s still no target date for implementing it.

In the shorter term, drivers would be better served if MassDOT pursued the lower-tech solution of making all lanes accessible to those with Fast Lane transponders.

After all, customer service counts - even when talking about toll-taking.