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Cheaters beware: Massport is watching

Government bureaucrats wearing fluorescent vests have been crouched by the Tobin Bridge entrance, writing down license plate numbers on clipboards to catch toll cheaters.

At Hanscom Field, cameras are aimed at private planes' tail numbers, so pilots do not skip out on landing fees. Sophisticated computers at Logan Airport are tracking commercial flight patterns to make sure airlines pay for the full weight of their planes.

The honor system, according to the Massachusetts Port Authority, is over.

"We want to make sure that everybody's paying their fair share and nobody's paying more," said Matt Brelis, spokesman for Massport, which operates the two airports and owns the Tobin. "If there's abuse, then some are paying less and some are paying more."

A series of high-tech and low-tech monitoring systems have come online in recent months as transportation officials around the state contemplate shortfalls of billions of dollars. Savings on the monitoring programs are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, hardly enough to rebuild the state's infrastructure. But transportation officials are trying to make a point as taxpayers brace for potential tax and toll hikes.

Massport workers began monitoring tolls at the Tobin bridge last year, but fraud has been so rampant, said bridge director Joe Staub, that they are stepping up random checks and threatening cheaters with a lifetime ban from a local discount program.

The stakes for individual drivers are high. The bridge toll is $3 for drivers who pay cash and $2.50 for those with a Fast Lane pass. But Fast Lane drivers from Charlestown and Chelsea pay only 30 cents per trip to compensate them for the impact of bridge traffic on their communities.

Last year, the number of discounted trips on the bridge began going up at an alarming rate, from fewer than 45,000 a month to more than 55,000 a month, said Rick Handman, assistant director of the bridge.

Spot checks in November showed many drivers who were getting the discount, based on their assertions that they lived in Charlestown or Chelsea, had actually registered their car elsewhere. Massport sent out 7,000 letters to members of the discount program, asking that they verify their address with a copy of their driver's license, registration, and a recent electric bill. About 3,000 drivers were purged from the program.

Last month, the number of discount trips on the bridge rose again, to 57,000, so Handman and several other employees went out on three mornings during rush hour and jotted down more plate numbers. They cross-checked 774 plates from cars taking the discount and found that 77 were invalid. One driver getting the discount had a car registered in Maine, and another had one in New Hampshire, Staub said. They received $100 tickets.

Other drivers are getting letters on police letterhead demanding they show up in person to return their Fast Lane transponders. Staub suspects that more than a few Charlestown and Chelsea residents gave transponders to relatives.

"You're out for life, and if we don't get that transponder back, the person who gave it to you is going to get a $100 fine every time you use it," Staub said.

He estimates the unlawful discounts cost Massport $150,000 a year. Overall, drivers pay about $29 million each year in bridge tolls.

The high rate of fraud will cause more hassle for everyone in the discount program. Staub says drivers from now on will have to register for the program in person every year at the Fast Lane Service Center in East Boston, with proof of residency.

The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority began a similar audit at the Sumner and Callahan tunnels two years ago. At first, officials were using videotape to catch drivers who were taking a resident discount that lets drivers in some Boston neighborhoods pay 40 cents to use the tunnels rather than the full price of $2.50 or $3.

Two months ago, managers began cross-checking the discount list against addresses in the Registry of Motor Vehicles database, leading them to purge more than 3,000 of the discount program's 18,696 registered users.

Turnpike Authority spokesman Mac Daniel said not all of those stripped from the roll were committing fraud. Some had moved and were no longer using their transponders.

He estimates that bogus discounts cost the authority hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Authority board members will decide soon whether they will try to recover money from the worst offenders.

The effort to recover money at Hanscom began in January and has increased collections by $6,000 a month, said Sara Arnold, manager of airport administration. Plane owners who do not rent space there regularly are supposed to pay a landing fee, usually between $10 and $15, depending on weight. In the past, pilots were allowed to self-report their fees.

But in January, cameras on the runway began recording identification numbers on the planes' wings, so the airport's contractor can send out a bill. As a result, fee collections rose 9 percent this month, Arnold said.

At Logan, Massport bought computer software that links the authority's computers directly with Federal Aviation Administration radar. Based on registration data, managers now know exactly how heavy the plane is and which airline owns it, so they can charge the right fees.

In the old days, airlines self-reported their landing fees, said Flavio Leo, manager of aviation planning. The automated system does not bring in more money, because regular audits would have identified any discrepancies, but it does spot errors more quickly and makes record-keeping easier, he said.

US Airways had been undercharging itself $200,000, Brelis said.

"It wasn't something sinister," Leo said. "We traced it back to an error."

He said that even without the new equipment, the error would have been detected through an audit. "It's all automated," he said. "It's a much more dynamic system."

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